Comic Book Fanthropology examines the questions of who and what comic fans are. What prompts them to join fandom in the first place, and why do they so often choose to remain a part of it throughout their lives? The specifics of comic fandom have changed since its hesitant beginnings in the 1920s and ‘30s, but the fans themselves have not. Whether they’re interested in superheroes or in shōjo manga, whether they express themselves in letter columns or through costuming, whether they enjoy minicomics or webcomics, Comic Book Fanthropology explains who they are.

From November 27, 2009 until January 18, 2010, I serialized the main body of content for Comic Book Fanthropology here. Completely free for everyone to read. I'm leaving it online for people to reference and browse.

"That's crazy! Why should I bother to buy your book then?"

The online version will not have any of the interior artwork, Marvel Vice President Tom Brevoort's Foreword or any of the Fan Profiles. I'm also betting that most people won't be keen to read the whole book online and those that are probably wouldn't have bought a copy anyway. Plus it might just provide a sufficient enough sample to convince someone unfamiliar with my work to pick up a copy.

So, feel free to start reading below and, if you like what you're seeing, you can find links to purchase paperback and hardcover versions of the book on the left.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Fans vs. Collectors vs. Nostalgics, Part 2

All of these factors tied together and prompted the idea that publishers could design comics to be collectible, thereby tapping into some of the after-market funds by creating an immediate demand, as opposed to the delayed one that generally drove the collectibles market. Early publisher gimmicks were simple, such as heavily promoting first issues or “significant” events, but there were enough comic fans that tried to cash in on the speculator market that publishers noticed sales spikes on those issues. By the early 1990s, they were promoting variant covers and pre-polybagged issues as well as heavily marketing “event” comics to mainstream media outlets. All of which encouraged a collector mentality among fans as well as non-fans eager to tap into a booming economic market.

In recent years, however, the comic collector looking for economic gains has dwindled. In the first place, the aforementioned speculator market burst in the mid-1990s, forcing many people who had tried collecting allegedly rare and unique comics to sell them for a fraction of what they paid for them. Though some believe the number of those individuals is comparatively small.

They actually thought all the comics they were printing were selling to eager fans, when in fact, I estimate that at least 30% of all the comics being published from 1990-1994 ended up as overstock in comics dealers inventories.
—Chuck Rozanski, Tales from the Database

In the second place, readers don’t need to be collectors the way they used to be. When Byrne was looking for old Fantastic Four stories, he had no alternative but to seek out the original issues in which they were printed. New issues rarely contained reprint material and when they did, often it was haphazard. Readers couldn’t necessarily count on the next reprint issue containing the story that immediately followed the currently reprinted one. Publishers, though, have paid more attention to that reprint market recently, providing a variety of ways someone can engage the same story. That same issue Byrne bought from the barber has been reprinted at least 15 different times, several versions of which have remained in print for years and some are available digitally. The need for a fan to act as a collector is no longer present, by and large, as they can still partake of their favorite stories without involving themselves with the preciousness of rare objects like fifty year old comic books. Which is not to say that there aren’t comic collectors any longer.

When I first started, my goal was to get complete sets of Avengers, Captain America and Thor. I completed my set of Avengers last year, I’m one issue away from a complete set of Thor and three issues away from having the entire run of Captain America. Once I finish completing those, I’m going to try to finish my JLA set.
—Mike Berry, personal communication

Clearly, any number of old comics are sold every day both online and in physical retail locations. A large portion of comic conventions is devoted to retailers selling these paper artifacts. Some of these individuals might be completists, looking to acquire an entire run of a particular title or perhaps every appearance of a certain character. In cases such as these, though, psychologists have yet to define a clear cause for this behavior despite generations of examinations.

Some have likened the process to the hunter-gatherer mentality of pre-historic man, but this does not account for the fact that pre-historic man’s gathering was more immediate and fleeting (i.e. they gathered berries and ate them soon afterwards) nor that not everyone collects. Others have made comparisons to various mental disorders; Maggie Thompson once jokingly suggested to me that everyone at a comic convention had Asperger’s syndrome. But research so far has been far from conclusive, as collectors tend to have few traits in common with patients known to have obsessive-compulsive disorder, which many presume is a higher order of the hoarder mind-set, itself believed to be a higher order of the collecting one. There has been some speculation that collecting is somehow genetic, and researchers have found some casual evidence that a “collecting gene” tends to run in families. But here again, scientists have found little to form any substantive theories yet. We are left with the idea that some people do have a strong desire to collect things, and some of those people collect comics, but little else can be concretely said on the topic.

Nostalgia can, of course, play in to the reasoning behind purchasing comics. It’s not uncommon for adults to long for earlier times that they have mentally given a whitewashing, pushing back any negative memories and emotions to only recall the “good ol’ days.” As I’ll elaborate on in the next chapter, comics are often tied to strong emotions, thus making the recollections of them more desirable. Those memories can be enhanced or recalled more easily with the aid of objects from the period in time the individual yearns for, and comics’ iconic images are ideal triggers. The comics remind them of a time when they were able to enjoy the simple pleasure of reading without the responsibilities that come with adulthood.

Here I was pushing thirty, and thinking to myself, “Why not have the things I enjoyed when I was ten?” So the bug bit me, and I began collecting all over again.
—Bill Thailing, The Golden Age of Comic Fandom

Some fans indeed continue buying new comics in an attempt to recapture that very feeling. “If reading Action Comics made me feel happy twenty years ago, reading Action Comics now should illicit a similar reaction.” It’s not a bad premise on first glance; however, the changes in the creative team of the comic over that time and the experiences a reader has that inevitably impact her or his thinking will almost inevitably result in that same feeling not being recaptured. Those changes, though, often aren’t that perceptible because the comics are often purchased on a month-to-month basis. Creative team changes are generally not done across the board (even if the writer and artist are replaced, the editor is not) and few people have significant life events each and every month. So the premise is actually more akin to “If reading Action Comics made me feel happy last month, reading Action Comics this month should illicit a similar reaction.” It is only when this process is carried out over years or even decades that it becomes less and less feasible. But the emotional connection with the characters remains important, and I’ll discuss how that plays out in the next chapter.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Fans vs. Collectors vs. Nostalgics, Part 1

In common usage, comic book fans are often called comic book collectors. Indeed, many fans have accumulated large collections of comics over the years and even refer to themselves as collectors. Not infrequently, they are, but I feel that there is a distinction between fans and collectors that needs to be made and addressed.

Comics have, almost since their inception, had a temporal quality to them. Not only do they reflect the times in which they were created, but the very physical objects themselves were embedded with a certain transience. For generations, comics were printed on the poorest paper stock available, often using the cheapest printing techniques. They cost readers very little money to purchase and they were disposed of soon afterwards. Many people were perfectly content with that because, after all, a new installment would be out soon enough with all new stories. (In the case of comic books, this was generally monthly or bimonthly; in the case of comic strips, it was daily.)

Since comics were considered a disposable medium, it should come as no surprise that few people saved them. Those that remained interested in the individual comics after subsequent issues were published were left scrambling to find any issues they might have missed due to spotty distribution.

Issue two I found in the local barbershop. It took me three days to work up the nerve to ask the barber to sell it to me. I was willing to offer him cover-price for the slightly dilapidated copy. He gave it to me for free...
—John Byrne, The Fantastic Four Chronicles

But frequently, these quests were driven by an interest in simply reading more about the characters than an innate desire to have every issue. There were very few stories about any given comic character since they simply had not been around very long. Though it may be difficult to put into perspective here in the 21st century, when discussions about popular characters falling into the public domain by virtue of how long they’ve been around is not at all unheard of, the volume of comic book stories back then was not nearly as great. The above quote from Byrne refers to a time when there were less than a dozen issues of The Fantastic Four in existence; by acquiring that single issue, Byrne went from having half of all the FF stories ever made to having two-thirds of them. He was clearly enjoying the characters’ exploits and just wanted to see what other incredible adventures they might have.

This is a relevant point since the fans, over time, will naturally accumulate an increasing number of individual comics. The periodical nature of many comics meant than new installments were constantly being published, and readers would soon accumulate stacks of comics just by their virtue of not disposing of them. Fans would hang on to older issues for their entertainment value; a good issue of Daredevil will remain a good issue of Daredevil no matter how often you read it. This is where the distinction needs to be made between a comic fan and a comic collector.

We don’t call someone who buys lots of books a book collector—not unless they buy first editions, or other rarities. If they just buy books to read and keep them to reread, we call them an avid reader with a big library. That’s me—both with comics and with books. I buy ‘em to read them. I keep them to read them again. I have a lot of them because I’ve been doing this for almost thirty years.
—Kurt Busiek, personal communication

A collector, by contrast to an avid reader, would be someone whose interest lies more in the acquisition itself, rather than the entertainment value derived from any given comic. They are more interested in either the “thrill of the hunt” or simply using their collection as a form of capital, either cultural or economic. While the hunters and cultural capitalists have been around, in some fashion, since the dawn of comic book collecting, the economic viability of a comic book collector is comparatively recent.

While comic fans were almost always willing to pay more than the original cover price for comics they felt were rare and valuable, it wasn’t until the mid-1960s when anyone really took serious note of it. Articles began appearing The New York Times, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek and the like noting that some people were willing to pay several dollars apiece for old comics that had originally cost ten cents. A 1965 piece in Newsday pointed out that “in exceptional cases, where a single book is needed to complete a collection, members have paid as much as $100.” Not surprisingly, this spurred an after-market economy, where fans and collectors would try to make money reselling comics they had bought from traditional retail outlets like newsstands.

We were speculating on stuff back then. We’d go around and grab stuff off the racks, get eight or ten. And then every once in a while, something really good came out. We’d drive up to Delowers in Oakland and they’d have a pile of, like, 200 of them. I remember we did that with House of Mystery 185 with the first Williamson.
—Dick Swan, unpublished interview with Tim Stroup

The increased attention led to more and more people using comics as a means of economic capital. Price guides were becoming common with Bob Overstreet providing the most comprehensive version. This all led to specialized comic book shops opening and, eventually, the direct market distribution system. The direct market was originally established to provide a faster and more reliable comic distribution network but it also proved to help facilitate a closed system which would allow publishers to have more control over the comics they produced. They had direct communication with the retailers and were able to utilize that to better promote new comics and storylines; they had more accurate sales data; and they didn’t end up having to pulp stacks of comics that were returned to them from newsstands.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Promoted from Captain Marvel to Major Victory, Part 2

The end of the previous chapter touched on the different roles fans can play. These roles have some significance in how fans are compared to one another as far as their cultural capital is concerned. A child idly reading a Wonder Woman comic isn’t going to be compared to an editor of DC Comics. Fans who have been reading comics for fifty years are put in a different classification than retailers. Their roles within comicdom are such that put them in contact with widely different sets of data and information which are, by and large, not privy to other roles. An editor, of course, would know about line-wide sales numbers whereas a retailer would have access to local trends. An older fan is expected to know more simply by the longevity they’ve had within fandom and newcomers are understood to be in the process of learning the basics. Each role, however it’s defined by fandom at large, has a different set of expectations that accompany it—a prototype of sorts—that allows individual fans to be assessed within a comparatively homogeneous group. This has the effect of more firmly establishing tiers within fandom, but simultaneously leveling each of those tiers so everyone is gauged against a fair baseline.

Not surprisingly, this doesn’t work quite so idyllically in practice.

Part of the reason for being in fandom, indeed any group, is to enhance one’s self-esteem. While this can be, and is often, accomplished through the external positive reinforcement of valued characteristics, it can also be internally supported by demeaning others’. That is, while other fans can provide encouragement or advice, some choose to belittle others in order to make themselves appear better than they are. It’s a relatively well-worn mechanism for coping with low self-esteem to bring down those around you in order to feel superior to them, and it would be foolish to think that comicdom is immune from such tactics.

The Simpsons’ own Comic Book Guy is an easy, albeit exaggerated, example. He regularly and casually dismisses all opinions that aren’t in line with his own; he always talks down to his customers, especially those who don’t immediately appear to have a purchase in mind; he continually makes comic book references regardless of their appropriateness for his audience in an effort to showcase his knowledge of the medium; a large proportion of his dialogue, certainly most of what is said to other characters, is sarcastic. Nearly all of his conversations with other characters involve his attempting to demean them in some fashion, and he’s shown very few positive character traits over the years.

I can’t tell you how many times people have come up to me and said, ‘I know who you based that comic book guy on. It’s that comic-book guy right down the block.’ And I have to tell them, ‘No, it’s every comic-bookstore guy in America.
—Matt Groening, TV Guide

The extreme exaggeration, both in the Comic Book Guy character and Groening’s comment, is where the humor stems from, of course. But the idea of a comic book fan trying to lord his or her cultural capital to both those in decidedly different roles and altogether unrelated outgroups is not unheard of. This type of behavior suggests that the individual is either unwilling or unable to distinguish the differences in value systems between her or his own tribe and role, and those of others. The stereotype that’s arisen from this bears some superficial similarities to the stereotype for someone with Asperger’s syndrome, notably with regards to social interactions. While it’s almost certain that some comic book fans do indeed suffer from Asperger’s, that particular stereotype of comic book fans is one that has largely fallen by the wayside, not coincidentally alongside a broader acceptance of the medium as a whole.

While all of this discussion of having and assessing cultural capital is necessary, it doesn’t speak to the more practical side of the equation. Namely, how is a fan able to increase their cultural capital and, more to the point, why would a fan want to increase their cultural capital in the first place? Since I touched on the answer to the latter question earlier in this chapter and it is the less complex of the two, I’ll address that first. How fans might go about increasing their capital is the subject of a later chapter: “A Culture of Participation.”

The reason why someone might want to increase their cultural capital is actually a subject I’ve already discussed: self-esteem. People uses comic book fandom as a means of connecting with one another and validating their sense of self. The other members of fandom share many of the same values as the individual, thus providing justification that the individual’s values are valid. Such a consensus approach provides ready and constant reassurance to the individual that the traits she or he uses to help provide a self-identity are considered valuable, thus promoting the internalized notion that the individual holding those characteristics is valuable as well.

Comics in this country have become very much a way to define oneself, either as a fan or as a creator. “This is my identity; I do this.”
—Landry Walker, Independents

One could argue that there are other reasons you might want to raise your cultural capital. Jerry Bails famously worked hard early in his fandom career to convince DC Comics to revive the Justice Society of America. There’s the possibility that comic fans with high cultural capital could be hired to work in the industry. There have been fans who tried to improve their standing within fandom in order to get emotionally closer to another individual, perhaps a potential love interest or a celebrity.

But beneath those rationales, and any other you might think of, is self-esteem. If you are trying to become a professional comic book artist because you think that will make you happy, that’s an attempt at improving your self-esteem. If you are trying to get a date with the cute cashier at the local comic shop because you think he or she will make you happy, that’s an attempt at improving your self-esteem. If you’re trying to help revive old characters that you really enjoyed as a kid, that’s an attempt at improving your self-esteem. Even the simple notion of swaying someone else’s opinion is, at heart, an issue of self-esteem; “Wow, my thoughts were valuable and/or powerful enough to convince someone else to my line of thinking.” That clearly is a validation of an individual’s thoughts, reinforcing their self-esteem by “proving” that he or she was right.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with any of those rationales, and they’re all quite justifiable. People have an inherent desire to want to feel good about themselves and comic book fandom provides innumerable ways to help in that regard. Connecting with other people who share similar values provides an individual with a sense of belonging as they’re joining a community; it provides an individual with validation for the values they use to identify her- or himself; it provides active reinforcement and encouragement of their positive characteristics, and empathy and sympathy when those are lacking. The act of reading a comic book can provide happiness, but it’s really the connections with others—being able to really become a part of comic fandom—that gives an individual a longer term sense of joy and self-worth.

Your cultural capital asks how much sway you carry outside your immediate circle of friends.
—Juliette Powell, 33 Million People in the Room

Powell summed up the basic notion succinctly. Comic fans do want to persuade others to do things like hire them for jobs and change the editorial direction of a comic and show other people how valuable they are. This very book, in fact, is my trying to show you how I think comic fandom can be viewed.

Every individual is going to have different things that bring them joy and contentment, and it’s a basic human right to pursue that. But before I get to the ways in which fans try to raise their self-esteem through cultural capital, it’s worth noting that people often confuse that basic human right of pursuing happiness with an alleged right to happiness itself.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Promoted from Captain Marvel to Major Victory, Part 1

Typically, when people think of capital, they think of the financial capital involved with business and industry. CrossGen Comics had issues with their financial structure and couldn’t afford to pay their freelancers. Gorilla Comics couldn’t raise enough external money and ran into difficulties as the creators tried to finance their own comics. Charlton Comics ran into troubles when their sales declined enough that they couldn’t pay to keep up repairs on their deteriorating printing presses, much less buy new ones. Starting a new business of any sort, including the likes of comic publishers and retailers, requires a fair amount of initial capital investment to pay for getting things up and running. Most business majors in college will probably tell you that, if you’re opening your own business, you’ll need enough money at the start to essentially operate at a loss for the first two or three years.

But that’s not the type of capital that’s relevant to this discussion about comic book fans. Fandom can indeed be a source for this type of capital and there are conversations to be had along those lines; however, within the context of this book, this chapter will be looking at something called cultural capital.

The basic notion of cultural capital was introduced by Pierre Bourdieu in 1973, and was elaborated on by him over the ensuing decades. His essential premise was that there are, in fact, three types of capital: economic, social and cultural. I touched on economic capital in the opening paragraph above. Social capital is, to use the vernacular, all about who you know. Cultural capital is the knowledge, skills and wisdom someone has and is regarded as having value. Bourdieu originally used these descriptions in relation to French society at large and applied a somewhat limited view of what was culturally valuable. That is, cultural capital was someone’s knowledge and appreciation of “classical” forms of the arts created by the likes of William Shakespeare, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Leonardo da Vinci. It soon became apparent, however, that his application of the phrase he coined was rather limited in scope and highly subjective to his interpretation of value. In the years since then, cultural capital has been applied more broadly to encompass the values of any particular group. You should recognize by now that when I’m discussing a group’s values, I’m talking about the group prototype.

But Bourdieu still had hit on a good point: that money was not the only form of currency people used. People traded favors for political power; they educated themselves at schools to get better jobs; intellectual property was becoming as precious as physical property; grass roots organizations were making an impact on groups which had previously ignored their very existence. Clearly, something besides money was being bandied about as a means of exchange and this is where the ideas of social and cultural capital come into play.

To make sure everyone is perfectly clear on the distinctions between the three types of capital, let’s define them in relation to the comic industry. A comic book shop owner has a fair amount of economic capital; he or she has whatever is in the store’s bank account, of course, but also their inventory of comic book stock and, sometimes, the physical building itself and the property it rests on. An individual comic book fan has much the same type of economic capital, although often at a smaller scale relative to the shop owner. Social capital within the comic industry generally revolves around the names many comic fans are familiar with: the writers and artists of the most popular comics, as well as the editors, publishers, and other professionals in the industry. In short, if you start name-dropping comic professionals, you are using your social capital. Cultural capital in comicdom is how well you know the Nelvana mythos, whether or not you can recite the Green Lantern oath from memory, being able to determine who inked a comic just by looking at the style of brushwork, writing your own fan fiction and all the other traits that are considered valuable and part of the prototype. When a comic book fan utilizes the characteristics that are part of the prototype, they are showing their cultural capital.

The value of this cultural capital is immeasurable. Unlike economic capital, there is no concrete value one can ascribe to knowing a 50-year-old fictional character’s entire backstory. There is no way to score one person’s talent at discerning individual’s lettering styles against another person’s knowing which characters appeared in any given installment of Foxtrot. The traits might be considered valuable, but not in any quantitative sense. That said, an individual can accrue cultural capital just as they can accrue economic capital and use it to improve their status within the comic community.

It is relatively easy to see how someone can accrue economic capital. A person works at their job, earns money, and uses that to purchase comic books. The more comic books she or he buys, the more economic capital she or he has within comicdom. It’s also fairly easy to discern how someone might accrue social capital. First they meet a comic book professional and perhaps ask some questions. A dialogue between the two begins which might develop into a professional friendship. The professional could then introduce the fan to other professionals. The more people of importance the fan knows, and the more important they are, the more social capital they have.

Cultural capital is a bit more ephemeral. As noted earlier, the characteristics ascribed to the prototype are not able to merely be listed or categorized on a spreadsheet, but instead it is more of an accepted gestalt of the best traits seen in others. As cultural capital is just outward expression of these internalized ideas, it is likewise unable to be listed or categorized. The question that immediately and naturally arises, then, is: how can the amount of someone’s cultural capital be gauged? Fortune regularly creates a list of the wealthiest individuals from an economic perspective, and people frequently gauge their social capital by the number of contacts they have on various social networking sites.

There has yet to be a definitive way to assess someone’s cultural capital. It’s not unlike defining fandom in the sense that those within the group have an unwritten and almost inherent understanding of determining it. Fortunately, a single, decisive ranking of the value of fans’ cultural capital is unnecessary, much like economic rankings within one’s own circle of friends and relatives is unnecessary. The reason it’s unnecessary is that cultural capital is only of relative worth.

Whatever cultural capital you might have is only worth something to others who find that capital valuable. A comic fan who has memorized a great deal of information about the stable of Marvel characters might be well known and respected in his or her own circles, but that same information would mean very little to a fan of Matt Feazell’s mini-comics. Likewise, those interested in mini-comics have very little cultural capital as far as a fan of InuYasha might be concerned. Indeed, someone outside of comic fandom would find all of the cultural capital within fandom effectively useless. Recall that the praise-worthy values within fandom were designated by fandom itself, and they may not have any bearing or impact with outgroups.

The observation of someone else’s cultural capital cannot be done on sight. Further, it is inherently not static as the individual will continue to accumulate knowledge and traits considered valuable. (Alternatively, one can forget things as well and lose cultural capital but this is most often associated with decreased interest in fandom, if not a definitive break from it. The individual would likely cease calling him- or herself a fan and would have little or no use for the cultural capital established in that group in any event.) Thus, assessing cultural capital must be done over a period of time and is continually valuated.

When I first learned how to develop web pages, I quickly realized that I could transfer much of the knowledge and information I knew about the Fantastic Four to a website. My original intent was to have a readily accessible and easy-to-update system of keeping track of that information. That it was then shared with the rest of the world was something of an incidental concern for me at first. So I built a Fantastic Four website and began telling my online friends about it to share the information with them. At the time, there were several other Fantastic Four websites available and, not surprisingly, some of the information on our respective sites was similar. Over the ensuing few years, I continued adding new information and features and it wasn’t long before my site dwarfed the others in sheer size. The original articles I wrote, the creator interviews I conducted, the historical information I uncovered all showcased the cultural capital I had built up from reading the comics so closely over the years.

As one of the earlier fan sites that went online, and later one of the most robust, it became apparent to others that any one person who could write so much and at such depth on the Fantastic Four must have a great deal of expertise on the subject. Fantastic Four fans saw me display my cultural capital over the ten or so years that I ran that website in a way that hadn’t been seen previously. My cultural capital was so valuable to Marvel that they were willing to use economic capital to gain access to it; basically, they paid me for what I knew about the Fantastic Four. It was the cultural equivalent of owning a closet full of expensive suits, but never wearing them out of the house; and once I did start wearing them out, others were surprised.

However, despite whatever cultural capital I held with regard to comics at large, I was primarily only recognized within Fantastic Four circles since that was what I tended to put on display. Anything I might say on the subject of webcomics or fandom or other topics was largely irrelevant to the group I was often with, and not seen at all by those who might have had some interest in it. Thus, when I stopped working on my Fantastic Four site to focus on broader issues relating to comics, I was initially met with indifference since I was essentially coming to a new group as an unknown quantity. Within this different group, I had to be re-analyzed and re-assessed to see what sort of cultural capital, if any, I had. In many respects, I was starting over in comic fandom. Although there’s certainly no way to definitively quantify such analysis, I would have to say that it took at least a year or two to actively and aggressively highlight my cultural capital in this new group before it was even remotely close to where it had been in my previous one.

Cultural capital is also only relative in the sense that however much I have, it’s only really put in comparison with, at most, a handful of individuals at any one time. How much I have is not definitively quantifiable, but it is generally fairly easy to judge whether I have more or less than the next fan. Two fans discussing comic book history could discern who had more cultural capital simply by the examples each sets forth. If one fan only displayed knowledge of comics made within her or his lifetime, and the other was able to reference that material plus comics that had been published decades before that, the latter fan would generally be considered richer with regard to cultural capital. Certainly, not every example would be as cut and dried as that but, in instances where any sort of ambiguity might make a determination difficult, most people seem generally content with stating that the two fans had roughly the same amount of capital. Because of the imprecision in determining the full range of someone’s cultural capital, plus the time it takes to assess, large scale comparisons are impractical. Generally comparisons are limited to small groups and are very informal.

Monday, December 21, 2009

I Yam What I Yam, Part 2

Stability and continuity are important aspects of life in general, and we often use rituals as a stabilizer in our lives. Centuries ago, man simply didn’t understand much of what was going on around him, so he fell back on rituals to provide some continuity in his life. He wasn’t sure if he would be able to even find a mammoth, much less be able to kill and eat it. So he developed a ritual to perform in advance of the hunt because it was a way to give him security and confidence before taking steps outside his cave into the unknown. He knew that, even though he couldn’t count on the outcome of the hunt, he could count on the activities proceeding it.

By the twentieth century, man had figured out a great many things. Everything from fire and the wheel to creating and harnessing electricity to bring a small amount of daylight to the city streets at night. But while man’s knowledge has increased, providing a great many answers to what was previously unknown, we keep raising new questions at an increasingly rapid pace. So while I—a resident of the 21st century—can rest pretty comfortably knowing that I can reliably get something to eat any time I step outside my dwelling, I don’t have any clue what my long-term future looks like. In effect, my future is just as uncertain as that of our Australopithecus afarensis friend, Lucy—the only difference is that my future extends further out than my next meal.

Alvin Toffler, in the early 1970s, noted this and began touting the notion of “future shock.” The idea being that life is indeed moving much faster than at any point in man’s history and we, as human beings, are being forced to constantly adapt ourselves to ever-changing status quo; further, that some people simply cannot mentally keep up and experience a form of culture shock within the very culture they’ve been living in. The worldview they have held suddenly seems wildly out-dated compared to the environment they now realize they’re in. In extreme cases, future shock can resemble post-traumatic stress disorder.

A man living in the 1800s could pretty well assume that his day-to-day activities weren’t likely to change that radically over the course of his lifetime. He still had to question whether or not he could earn enough of a living to buy food and keep his belongings secure, but he knew that if he was a cobbler, his job wasn’t going to appreciably change at all during his lifetime. By contrast, today’s jobs are radically different than they were even ten years ago and we can counteract the emotional impact of that by using rituals to provide an ongoing continuity and sense of self to our own lives. Toffler argued that by ritualizing aspects of our lives, we are able to reduce the psychological impact of rapid environmental changes, the root cause of future shock. We are able to essentially turn ourselves off during a ritual process, giving us time to refresh and recharge ourselves, even in the presence of outside stimuli such as a comic book story.

We frequently do this almost subconsciously. Primarily because the repeated behaviors that eventually become a ritual are enjoyable. In the case of a comic book fan, they might return to their favorite comic book shop every week when new issues arrive. Although at first this is simply in order to purchase the newest comics, it becomes a routine as the weeks roll on, and eventually a ritual. The fan might head for the same store at the same time, or enter the store in the same manner, or exchange the same greeting with the employees. Regardless of the particulars, and almost regardless of what happens in the rest of the world, a comic book fan can walk into their local comic book shop once a week to purchase their latest favorite stories and take some solace in the familiar patterns they’ve developed in buying their favorite comics.

I was in a comic shop a few years ago on “New Comic Day”—the day when that week’s new comics are released. I was browsing the selections, and a gentleman walked in from the drizzling rain. The shop owner, having just sat down for a break from the regular hustle of business, greeted the customer with a sincere, “Mark! How’s it goin’? You’re in early today.” Mark proceeded to relay a story about having been fired not more than a few hours earlier and he’d need to trim down his comic purchases accordingly. On top of that, he then added, he had just found out the day before that he’s diabetic and he had to make some significant lifestyle changes, which would be extremely difficult now without being able to use his former company’s insurance. As he put it, he got a “one-two punch in the span of just over 24 hours.”

Mark’s life had been changed radically in a very short amount of time. One of the ways in which he was dealing with it was by attempting to carry out his habit of buying new comic books on a Wednesday afternoon. The ritual he had established in that particular store was familiar and therefore comforting, even if it was somewhat disturbed by other events in his life. Mark likely went home after purchasing whatever new issues he felt he could then afford, and carried out another set of rituals in reading them. Perhaps in a favorite chair, or with a particular type of music playing in the background. He embraced the familiar as a form of stability during an otherwise very turbulent time.

Fandom itself also provides a sense of stability to the individual. One of the reasons Mark stopped at the store was for sympathy and emotional support. The owner and manager of the store were the part of comic fandom that he specifically knew, and they showed an open and obvious compassion for Mark, as well as an appreciation for what he must have been going through. Indeed, as soon as Mark finished his pronouncement, the manager came up and hugged him with a visibly heart-felt embrace. She then invited him into the back of the store where they could sit and talk more privately. She almost certainly noted his positive attributes, helping to sooth his self-worth while reinforcing the values to which he ascribed as a comic book fan. While he had suffered some devastating setbacks, his characteristics which could help carry him through the adversity were no doubt rooted in his worth as a comic book fan. Not that those were the only characteristics which would help him, of course, but they would be the ones the comic shop manager would have been most familiar with, since her primary dealings with Mark all related back to their shared interest in comics.

The question of fandom’s eventual homogenization seems like one that is bound to come up in this type of discussion. If all comic fans are working towards becoming as much like their prototype as possible, the logical end-point would be when all fans become the same. This, as should be readily observable, does not happen. In the first place, as noted recently, the prototypical comic book fan so many are trying to become is ever-changing. Important values and traits may become less significant in lieu of new values and traits. Each fan works toward minimizing the difference between her- or himself and the prototype at different rates based on their opportunities and/or abilities. Fans rarely reach a uniform level of similarity, and the constantly changing end-point ensures that everyone remains on the path. Using a comic book analogy, one person might be one the opening splash page of a comic while another might be on page 16, while still another might be on a different panel of page 16, and yet another might be in the next issue. It’s part of the same story, but at different stages of it.

Furthermore, different roles within the group place individuals on altogether different tracks. Indeed, many people working in the comic book industry are there because they were a fan of comic books first. So while one person might become a professional comic book artist, another might be a comic retailer. While one might be an area representative for a distributor, another might be an editor. Though their titles make them easy to cite, comic professionals aren’t the only ones following different tracks within fandom. Leadership roles can be assigned by those moderating message boards or chat rooms; the term “letterhack” was created to categorize individuals who wrote in to publishers and had many of their letters published; some people might just assume the function of “the guy who knows a lot about Johan and Peewit.” The roles aren’t ones that necessarily can be easily defined, and any one person can take up multiple roles.

Amusingly, this was played up in Marvel’s first official fan club. In 1967, editor-in-chief Stan Lee reproduced a somewhat tongue-in-cheek letter from a fan that read, in part...

I have watched the MMMS turn into disorganized chaos! (And that’s the worst kind!) As a solution, I suggest we have some officers. By buying his first Marvel mag, a fan is automatically entitled to the rank of RFO (Real Frantic One). His first published letter elevates him to QNS (Quite ‘Nuff Sayer)...
—Mark Evanier, Fantastic Four #64

Other fans wrote in approving of the idea, and Lee soon instituted a formal ranking system for Marvel fans, based on Evanier’s and others’ suggestions. While not taken entirely seriously, it still proved to be a functional shorthand that could be used to help gauge someone’s involvement in Marvel fandom in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The more rankings they earned, the more deeply involved with the entire line they were. Indeed, simply knowing of the system showed more than a passing level of involvement.

As an aside, Evanier would soon afterwards go on to become an assistant to creator Jack Kirby and later a fairly well-known writer in his own right. And, on a personal side note, I was proud to have earned the first three of the six official rankings before graduating high school and got two more in college. I haven’t combed through the letters pages of each and every Marvel comic throughout this period, but I have never run across an instance of anyone earning the final ranking of Fearless Front-Facer. Although I think it’s safe to presume Lee did at least bestow it on himself in his typical self-deprecating manner.

Since we found out earlier that any one group would tend to max itself out around 150 members, that means that there can easily be multiple people in the same stage and/or filling the same role simultaneously within the larger body of comic fandom. Using some of the easy-to-define examples, Chris Claremont and Scott Lobdell were both writing X-Men comics at the same time, thus defining both men as X-Men writers, but they were at different points in their careers then. Brian Clevinger and Scott Wegener both worked on Atomic Robo at roughly the same point in their careers, but in different roles: writer and artist. Steve Lieber and Jeff Parker worked their way into the industry as artists roughly in tandem and shared studio space together; however, the projects they worked on led one to more work for DC Comics and the other to more work for Marvel Comics, putting them in distinctly different groups.

It’s certainly possible, often likely, that an individual can change their role within a group or reach farther along on their path. While success for moving around within fandom generally relies on ability, effort and motivation, the currency that is almost always involved is called “cultural capital.”

Friday, December 18, 2009

I Yam What I Yam, Part 1

I defined comic book fandom, in part, by stating that it was a collective decision for someone to become a part of fandom. Simply being a fan wasn’t enough to join the ranks of fandom; you had to be accepted by fandom itself to be considered part of the group. These are all parts of social identity theory, and are a fairly well-accepted means of looking at groups like comic book fans. More recently, something of an extension of social identity theory called self-categorization theory was developed. Interestingly, despite its roots in social identity theory, self-categorization theory heads in an almost entirely opposite direction focusing on, not surprisingly given its name, the way an individual views her- or himself.

Earlier in the book, I discussed briefly how members of a group develop a prototype. Looking at the existing characteristics of individual group members, they subconsciously create a mental ideal of what traits are most acceptable or most valuable within their circle.

Prototypes are ordinarily unlikely to be checklists of attributes... rather, they are fuzzy-sets which capture the context-dependent features of group membership often in the form of exemplary members (actual group members who best embody the group) or ideal types (an abstraction of group features). People are able to assess the prototypicality of real group members, including self—that is, the extent to which a member is perceived to be close or similar to the group prototype.
—Michael Hogg, Social Groups & Identities

What Hogg is saying here, as it relates to comic fans, is that people develop prototypes based on the best examples from fandom and then, with such a prototype defined, individuals can weigh their, or anyone else’s, characteristics against the prototype’s. In effect, they use the prototype as the basis by which to judge how much of a “real” fan someone is; a “real” fan would meet all or most of the criteria embodied by the prototype. As Hogg notes, there isn’t a checklist of attributes one consciously goes through, but fans can generally make an almost subconscious assessment by mentally overlaying an individual with the prototype to see how well the two align. Think of it like comparing signatures by placing the two pieces of paper on top of one another and holding them up to a light. One signature is known as being definitive and reliable (i.e. the prototype) and the other being a signature whose authenticity you’re checking for (i.e. the individual).

Conversely, this is generally not done for outgroups. While a prototype for an outgroup member may exist in the mind of a comic fan, they often simply apply the prototype to an outgroup member instead of making an actual comparison. In effect, this is stereotyping (and a large basis for Tajfel’s research on social identity theory). People default to broad categorizations to more readily identify and deal with outgroup members, rather than spending time to learn the specific idiosyncrasies of an individual. It is believed this is done to help facilitate faster communications by allowing people to rely on prior experiences with or knowledge of other members of similar outgroups.

But for members of the ingroup, this comparison against the prototype provides a form of self-identification with an ongoing stream of feedback. Both social identity theory and self-categorization theory do have a fundamental assumption that says people have a strong desire to establish and maintain a generally positive self-image. It is for that reason that they join groups in the first place and why they enhance their existing characteristics to more closely match a group prototype. Indeed, one’s self-esteem is not infrequently a reason to pick up a comic in the first place.

Mick Martin relayed his experience in buying his first comic book on the “Trouble with Comics” blog in 2009...

I was very conscious of why I bought the comic. The cover made it appear to be a story in which the Hulk faced down the rest of the world’s superheroes... I was a lonely and angry kid. I felt like the other kids at school would like me if they just tried to get to know me, and I dreamed of the day that would happen. In the meantime, every day on the playground felt exactly like the cover of The Incredible Hulk #278. The thing that never occurred to me until I saw the comic was that maybe on that playground I was the hero, and all those bastards who made fun of me, they were the assholes.

An individual within fandom, as discussed earlier, has derived a fan prototype from the most valued traits that are relevant to the group. This prototype, when compared with those held for significant outgroups, is almost invariably positive. The typical comic fan is seen as superior to a stereotypical outgroup member since a member of fandom has more characteristics of value. The valued traits are, by definition, highly valued but still seen as an achievable ideal to aspire to. As the prototype is often built on direct examples of real individuals within the group, the ideal is actually considered attainable and can be established a realistic life goal. If, for example, the comic book fan prototype has at least 10,000 issues in his personal collection, it would not be difficult to find any number of specific fans who have achieved exactly that. Using another example, if the comic fan prototype is in some form of regular communication with a professional comic artist, it is likewise not difficult to find any number of specific fans who are engaged in daily conversations with their favorite creators. This very real possibility of becoming more like the fan prototype is able to provide a continual stream of small ego-boosts for an individual as they achieve a series of goals in making themselves more like the prototype.

Soon after I began reading The Fantastic Four regularly, I realized that a “real” fan of Marvel Comics knew a great deal about their entire cache of characters, not just the four showcased in my favorite title. My budget, not surprisingly, was limited and I could only afford four comics per month, so I made a very deliberate decision to follow The Fantastic Four, The West Coast Avengers, Silver Surfer and The Punisher. My reasoning was that The Fantastic Four and West Coast Avengers both covered decent-sized groups of characters on opposite coasts of the United States, thus keeping me abreast of the biggest events with the most characters, while Silver Surfer and The Punisher provided opportunities to stay current with cosmic- and street-level stories respectively. I felt safe in the assumption that repeated guest appearances of Spider-Man and the X-Men would keep me up to speed on those decidedly more popular characters. Additionally, getting copies of The Official Handbook to the Marvel Universe from a friend gave me essentially a character encyclopedia for everyone else. I was able to establish myself as a “real” Marvel fan because I knew what was going on across the company’s entire line of superhero comics. I might not have been able to buy as many comics as some people, but because I specifically tailored my reading habits, I had a better understanding of the overall tapestry than most and was, in my mind at least, more of a Marvel fan than most.

As I began becoming more interested in comics as a medium, I began hearing references to comics and graphic novels beyond the Marvel Comics I had spent years reading. While the disparate publishers prevented me from taking the exact same tactics I had used earlier, I was able to proceed with a similar strategy. I began picking up comics that would provide the most relevant and wide-ranging look at the medium as a whole. I couldn’t buy the entire output of Will Eisner, but A Contract With God did a pretty good job of showcasing his abilities; I couldn’t track down the complete collected works of Walt Kelly or George Herriman, but I could borrow my father’s slightly dog-eared collections of Pogo and Krazy Kat that he bought in college. I became familiar enough with a broad enough swath of creators that I felt comfortable talking about more than just Marvel heroes. I made (and still make) a series of decidedly targeted readings to better familiarize myself with the entire medium of comics. I was taking steps towards the mental prototype of a comic book fan that was in my head, and each accomplishment—finding and understanding how various creators approach their work, not necessarily acquiring the work itself—moved me one step nearer becoming a “real” comic book fan.

Over the years, I have become, as far as my self-identity is concerned, more and more of a comics fan. My ongoing reading and research gives me a deeper appreciation for the medium and its creators, and a better understanding of the medium on the whole. I am closer to the prototypical fan than I was a decade ago, with a resulting increase in my self-esteem. Those traits that I value in the comic fan prototype, the ones that I feel make someone a “real” comic fan, are ones that I admire as an ideal; and because I am closer now to that ideal than I used to be makes me proud. I am acquiring more traits of value, giving me a greater sense of self-worth and making me happier and more content.

This is further reinforced by the rest of comic fandom. If comic book fans, on the whole, all place high value on a certain characteristic of the prototype, and you display that characteristic yourself, other fans will respond positively. This can be seen on display in any number of fashions. A clear example of direct reinforcement can be seen during trivia challenges at comic book conventions which reward those contestants with the most knowledge about comic books with prizes. Less direct, but certainly more common, examples occur in casual discussions about comics. One fan might cite the number of comics in their possession while others nod approvingly or otherwise appear visibly impressed. Though less impactful, even a simple “Right on!” or “Woot!” response on a message board encourages and validates the individual’s self-image. Others are openly acknowledging of the valuable assets a single fan has, reiterating the message that the fan her- or himself is valuable.

All of these serve to bolster one’s self-esteem, but they also serve to reinforce the validation of the group itself. The encouragement and support shown through group intra-action shows the individual that, not only are they worthy of love and respect but also, that such love and respect is administered by members of the group. A comic fan whose thoughts and ideas are valued is encouraged to share more by other fans. While those thoughts and ideas could certainly by shared with anyone, they are likely to be most appreciated by others who have similar tastes and aesthetic sensibilities; namely, members of that very same group of comic fans. Consequently, the fan’s thoughts and ideas are shared back with the group, who receive them eagerly. The fan’s self-esteem is raised, as is the perceived benefit of the group of fans who helped raise it.

This cyclical process is not necessarily perpetual. Both the individual fan’s and the overall fandom’s values can change. A single person, of course, can at any time re-evaluate their priorities. Perhaps the birth of a child, a change in vocation or a debilitating illness might bring about such a re-evaluation. At the fandom level, a change in the economy, shifts in publication policies and technological improvements can impact how the prototype is collectively altered. Self-publishing is a prime example of how technology can change the values of fandom. The fanzines of the 1950s and 1960s were not infrequently drawn with relative crudeness, in large part because the production technology was limited to a handful of individuals who did not necessarily have much artistic ability, and there was a clear demarcation between professional comics and amateur ones. As technology improved and became more readily available, more artists were able to produce their own works that were comparable in quality to that of the largest publishers. Technology continued to improve and by the 21st century, virtually any creator who had the desire could develop an online comic for a website that might be indistinguishable from those of the major players. Accordingly, fandom’s attitude towards comics from “non-professionals” has changed. As has the very definition of comic professional, as I’ll elaborate on later.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Circles of Tribalism, Part 2

This then points to the structure—or lack thereof—within the broad definition of comic book fandom. Batman might sell a copy of each issue to 100,000 fans every month, but those 100,000 people break up into much smaller groups to enjoy and discuss the issue with one another. There might be a group of a dozen that meet up at the local library once or twice a month. There might be 100 or so over at one message board, and another 100 at another board. DC Comics has their own official message board set up for Batman discussions, which attract another crowd of fans. Others are likely using social media sites to conduct their discussions. Still others might limit themselves to private emails. The point is, of course, that there is not merely a single outlet for fans to get together and share their appreciation of Batman. Individuals will seek out other like-minded fans and congregate when and where they can find one another.

Comiket was founded as an alternative meeting for people that broke from the manga taikai. They wanted to have the freedom of expression, to be able to parody, criticize and rewrite established works.
—Ichikawa Koichi, The Otaku Encyclopedia

Each of these smallish groups acts more or less independently, as outlined in the previous chapter. Each has their own social rules and mores they follow, and each group’s overall character is slightly different. However, many of the ideas are the same or similar since, after all, they are all united by the same appreciation of the same character(s). Will Brooker, in Batman Unmasked, drove home the point that, regardless of the specific interpretation of the character, there remains some unifying traits common among every iteration and every reading of the character. Whether any individual reader responds more strongly to the detective aspect or the martial arts expert angle or latent homosexual readings or simply the diverse cast of supporting characters, the unifying traits are the larger portion of what’s being responded to, which then provides a commonality among all Batman fans, regardless of why they first enjoyed it.

As in ‘The Batman Nobody Knows’, each participant argues for his or her own interpretation over the others, regardless of its improbability—Julie Madison’s hero would be eighty years old, after all—and when Batman, shadowy and noble, appears to free them, each reads from him only what suits them: the beauty of a former sweetheart, a ‘faar out’ old amigo or a dude in ‘wicked armor’. It is a sweet, generous story and, I think, in some ways symptomatic of DC’s current willingness to allow a little play with the rules of the Dark Knight.
—Will Brooker, Batman Unmasked

Each of the several hundred informal Batman fan groups in existence are acting independently; however, it’s almost certain that some fans travel in multiple groups, thus allowing cross-communication among them. Similarly, some Batman fans likely also travel in other non-Batman fan groups, such as those who enjoy Action Comics or Uncanny X-Men, which each have any number of smallish, independent groupings. Which, in turn, each have some overlap with other groups. The number and variety of overlapping fan groups would be so complex as to be virtually impossible portray in a Venn diagram, especially when you start including fans of particular artists and writers, companies like Active Synapse and G.T. Labs, and visual styles like ligne claire and sprite comics. It is then the culmination of all of these groups that would be the body of comic fandom, each one acting independently from the others but all sharing similar values and characteristics based on a common medium.

As noted at the end of the last chapter, however, it still seems almost self-evident that there ought to be a fair amount of difference between fans of Batman and fans of Asterix. Indeed, not all of these circles of fans necessarily overlap directly. Those with the fewest commonalities, not surprisingly, bear the least relation to one another, creating a distinct ingroup/outgroup scenario even within the overall ingroup of comic fans. One group of people might be fans of the medium of sequential art, while another might be fans of superheroes who happen to be frequently sold to them in comic form, as I suggested earlier.

This is where the conflicts stem from. While different tribes of comic fans are using the same terminology—scripting, line weights, page layouts, etc.—they’re speaking different languages. One group is applying those terms to and discussing them in relation to a medium, while another is applying the terms and discussing them in relation to a genre. So when one side claims Maus as a great example of comics, the other is left confused because they’re applying genre criteria to a work outside that genre. Conversely, a group lauding the workmanship in Green Lantern confuses the other side because they’re applying the full range of considerations for the medium against a specific genre piece. They are using the same words but speaking different languages, leading to an ingroup/outgroup dynamic.

Johanna Draper Carlson relayed to me an example of this type of ingroup/outgroup conflict within a small segment of comic fans. When she worked for DC Comics, part of her job was to moderate the company’s online message boards. At the time, the character Hal Jordan (Green Lantern) had gone insane, became a villain and was replaced by Kyle Rayner. Although Draper Carlson enjoyed this new character, she was in a distinct minority on that message board community and was on the receiving end of some particularly insulting remarks. Against claims that she was simply unfamiliar with Hal Jordan, she read through his appearances from previous decades. When she responded that her opinion was unmoved, she received even more insulting comments, even going so far as to claim that she must be sleeping with the book’s editor.

Draper Carlson suspected (probably rightly so) that jealousy had some influence here. After all, she had free access to a great deal of material the others did not. But part of the conflict came from the parties essentially discussing two different things: Draper Carlson was looking at the character from the standpoint of a new character with interesting story possibilities, whereas those insulting her were focused on how this new character would, to them, never be as good as the previous one. When those message board posters could not understand what Draper Carlson was saying (as they were trying to run her comments through a mental “But he’s not Hal Jordan” filter) she became an outgroup member in their eyes, and they began attacking her on anything else that was fundamentally different, including her gender.

That disconnect is especially note-worthy here because it highlights how diverse fans can be, even within a relatively small segement of the overall body of comic fandom. Even though everyone was discussing Green Lantern, the modes of discussion were radically different in their approach.

One of the keys, then, to avoiding such conflicts is to understand the approach others with whom you are speaking are taking. It is indeed possible to discuss the very same comic using any number of methods and to be able to float bewteen different camps, one needs to adopt slightly different perspectives on the same topic.

When I began to associate with a number of different comic related groups, there were five or six guys I chatted with every week at my local comic shop. There were a group of ten or twelve of us who hung out on one Fantastic Four centered message board. There was a group of 15 or 20 who hung out at another board that was also FF-specific, but part of a larger set of boards that included sections for about 30 of the most popular characters. Some of my comics research led me to the Marvel Chronology Project, where fans used storytelling elements from within the comics to try to establish a timeline for the entire fictional history of the Marvel universe. Plus, running my own website put me in contact with a host of other fans, several of which became contributors to the site itself. There was certainly some crossover among those groups—Carolyn was a regular contributor to both of the message boards, Jeph came from the board I moderated and provided contributions to the Chronology Project, Gregg contributed heavily to my site and popped over to the message boards, I was obviously a regular of all of them—but each group was a small community that had its own tenor. The group of message board moderators was decidedly more formalized and structured than the people I would run into in the comic shop. The Chronology Project discussions tended to run on longer and into much more detail than what I’d find on message boards.

All of these groups were discussing comics—frequently, the exact same ones—but the specifics of the dialogue were noticeably different. The message boards tended to look at issues more emotionally (“I really liked where...”), my site tried to stay more factual and apply objective standards to stories (“The framing structure glossed over key story beats...”), the Marvel Chronology Project focused almost exclusively on temporal placements (“The flashback scene must have happened after the previous issue because...”), and local shop discussions had a business-centric flavor (“Marvel is going to increase sales dramatically by...”). All of these disparate tribes contributed to the larger group of Fantastic Four fans, which also helped contribute to the larger group of Marvel fans, but that’s still only a small sampling of all comic book fans. You can begin to see the interlocking circles as you look at each of the properties that each publisher works with.

Also during this period, I began reading other types of comics with interest. Some were merely based on larger genre considerations, while others were to see variations and/or innovations in the actual storytelling form of comics. Regardless of the reasons, though, I was reading and enjoying books that were generally not being even noticed, much less read, by most of the people I was interacting with. If I wanted to have any sort of interactions connected to these other books, I needed to join other circles of comic book fans. I initiated a column for a magazine focused on a single creator, Jack Kirby; I signed up for an academic comic listserv (a discussion group using an automated email system); I began talking with comic creators at conventions who expressly did not work in the superhero genre; I started blogging and interacting with other comic bloggers whose interests were also not exclusive to superheroes.

I, and people like myself, provided something of a bridge between fans of superhero comics and fans of other types of comics. While there often is a marked difference between a typical Batman fan and a typical Naruto fan, they are not necessarily mutually exclusive and both contribute to the overall body of comic fandom. Each defines him- or herself as a comic book fan and are both correct in doing so. They have characteristics that they identify in themselves which match what they believe are prototypical for a comic book fan, and it’s that self-categorization that I’ll address next.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Circles of Tribalism, Part 1

It is effectively impossible to count the number of comic book fans there are. In the first place, people go in and out of fandom all the time. The term “gafia” gained some popularity in science fiction fandom as an acronym for “getting away from it all” to shorthand that notion. (Curiously, the phrase originally was used in reference to joining fandom and getting away from the mundanity of the real world, but eventually reversed itself and came to mean leaving the internal politics and strife within fandom.)

Another point to consider is that, even if one person is a fan of Wolverine, that doesn’t preclude them from being a fan of Teen Titans also. I suspect, in fact, that anyone who considers themselves a fan of comic books isn’t exclusive to one character or title. And since there’s no single, unifying body that covers all of fandom, a head count by way of comic book sales would necessarily include at least some redundancy.

For the sake of simplicity, let’s assume the estimates of Diamond Comic Distributors’ sales numbers are equal to the number of fans of each character. If that were the case, Justice League of America would have had 131,420 fans in August 2007. The New Avengers, under the same assumptions, would have 117,906 fans. But even assuming those numbers are gospel, we have no way of knowing how many of those New Avengers fans also bought the JLA book. We can safely assume that at least 12,000 people who bought JLA didn’t buy New Avengers but that’s about it.

Of course, using those sales estimates is rife with problems. First and foremost, they’re estimates based on Diamond’s closely-guarded actual numbers. Secondly, it only addresses the direct market of comic books, and not all of it, at that! While Marvel and DC have exclusive distribution agreements with Diamond, the same is not true of all publishers. Any comic shop can order books from a number of other sources, including directly from publishers in many instances. Furthermore, that’s just a portion of North America, and doesn’t even begin to include other continents.

As noted earlier in the chapter on defining fandom, the multiple directory attempts over the years offer paltry numbers compared to even basic comic circulation figures. If books like JLA and New Avengers garner over 100,000 sales apiece, then even the combined total of the most recent The Fandom Directory and the WSA membership list (arguably, the best broad-based sets of this type of data that has so far been compiled) wouldn’t account for more than 20% of that.

You can look to the 125,000 attendance number at recent years’ Comic-Con International as a guide, since convention organizers have worked hard to filter out dual countings. But, of course, CCI and events like it don’t draw in comic book fans exclusively. How many folks are there for Twilight or Star Wars and other licensed properties? Not to mention the certainly significant number of fans who simply can’t even attend. And here again, we’re looking almost exclusively at one country. Comics are popular enough to have conventions all over the globe from Barcelona to Tokyo.

Using any numbers along those lines, however inaccurate they may be, does not address a very significant aspect of comic fandom: namely, there’s no way any individual could possibly be connected with tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of other people within the same group. A single, 15-minute conversation with 125,000 people would take over three-and-a-half years, assuming you spent absolutely no time sleeping or eating. It should be obvious, then, that most comic book fans do not actually interact with the vast majority of comic fandom. Indeed, the number of regular interactions fans maintain is considerably smaller: around 150.

In a 1992 paper, Robin Dunbar put forth the idea that the number of regular, social interactions an average human can maintain is 147.8, a number he arrived at by comparing the size of primates’ neocortices against the size of their overall group. Dunbar choose the neocortex as a determining factor since that is the portion of the brain involved with the higher functions such as spatial reasoning, conscious thought and language. That correlation led to an equation that would predict the size of other primate groups, based on the size of their neocortex. Plugging in the size of a human neocortex, Dunbar arrived at the 147.8 number, which is frequently rounded up to 150. Although such casual rounding is generally frowned upon in scientific circles, Dunbar himself cited his results with 95% confidence margin. In statistical circles, this means that group results in general would tend to center around 147.8, but any individual result could swing as much as 50 points in either direction.

Dunbar went on to provide any number of examples to reinforce that group sizes tend to max out around 150. In particular, he noted that most organized armies throughout history have a basic unit of 150, and postulated that they have all arrived at the same conclusion through trial and error. Although more anecdotal in nature, Andreas Kluth reported in The Economist in 2009 that Facebook reported the average number of friends each user maintains is 120, further reinforcing Dunbar’s hypothesis in 21st century social media. The theory is new enough that it still warrants continued scrutiny, but evidence so far suggests that it is at least pointed in the right direction.

A skeptic might well ask about larger communities. Clearly, much of our civilization is based around groups larger than 150; Marvel Entertainment currently has about double that on staff, not mentioning the number of freelancers that work with them on a regular basis. This seemingly arbitrary 150 limit, though, applies to groups without a formal organization structure. By providing layers of organization, with clearly defined hierarchies and channels of communication, a group can grow much larger than 150 people. Back in the 1960s, for example, Marvel was a small company with only a handful of full-time employees and a dozen or two freelancers working with them. Their organizational structure was famously and notoriously loose with Stan Lee acting as head writer and editor-in-chief, handing out drawing and inking assignments almost haphazardly. The fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants style Lee embodied only could work because the company was so small. By the 1970s, Marvel (including the freelancers) had grown large enough that rules and regulations needed to be established so the company could continue functioning. This transition from an informal to a formal structure was, not surprisingly, characterized with corporate growing pains, including a fairly rapid succession of editors-in-chief. Ultimately the company was organized and structured around groups of books (all of the X-Men titles, for example) so that each group within Marvel contained fewer than 150 members.

The theory behind Dunbar’s number is that human brains only have the capacity to maintain only a certain number of social contacts on an ongoing basis, which is why Dunbar used neocortex size in his original study. Beyond that 150 person limit and we are unable to keep up with all of the individuals of the group in any sort of meaningful way. To have human societies that grow beyond a simple tribe, therefore, some organizational structure needs to be imposed. This provides a conduit of communication that can go beyond 150 individuals effectively, as each individual maintains 150 contacts, but not necessarily overlapping with everyone else’s 150 contacts. The structure of social networking sites like MySpace, Facebook and Twitter highlights this point; anyone using those sites will likely see some friends’ names appearing as others’ contacts, but it’s unlikely that any two individuals have the exact same lists of friends. Each individual has their own circle of friends, which may or may not overlap to some degree with someone else’s.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Us vs. Them, Part 2

It has been something of a running joke within comic book fandom that Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons is the perfectly prototypical comic fan. He’s single, overweight, condescending, emotionally arrested, obsessive, sarcastic and socially inept. His self-image has little connection with reality, due in large part to spending as much time as he does reading works of fiction, and he has no real influence or authority outside of his comic shop. He is, of course, a pastiche meant to poke fun of the worst aspects comic book fans. Given that people join groups, in part, to help their self-esteem (more on this later) it is absurd to hold up such a collection of negative traits as a prototype.

A comic book fan prototype, by contrast, has all of the characteristics of a comic book fan that are considered valuable or useful within fandom. For example, one characteristic might be the ability to identify an artist by the nuances of his or her linework—a trait that would be useful when looking at older comics that did not carry artistic credits. Another characteristic might be an excellent memory, which one could use to make connections between contemporary stories and older ones. It would virtually impossible to provide a complete list of every trait that could be assigned to a prototypical comic book fan, if for no other reason than such a list is mutable. These valued characteristics can change over time as they adapt to their surroundings and changes in the comic landscape. The specifics of what a prototypical comic fan looks like in the 21st century is different than what he or she might have looked like in 1970 in part because there were no such things as webcomics in 1970. Comic book fandom is organic and will continue to change as its membership changes.

Likewise, the traits and characteristics of outgroups change with time as well, and new outgroups are constantly being formed. There was no such thing as a “Star Wars fan” prior to 1977 and no such thing as a “Twilight fan” prior to 2005; those stories had yet to be produced. Since both comic fandom and all of its outgroups are constantly changing, therefore, the interactions between and among such groups is dynamic as well. What it means to be a comic fan now is different from what it meant to be a comic fan ten years ago. The landscape has changed, both within comic fandom itself, as well as among all the outgroups.

As new members are indoctrinated into fandom, they observe the actions and behaviors of existing fans. While each fan is an individual and has their own attitudes and mannerisms, commonalities can be seen by the new member across many of the existing fans. If a significant proportion of fans, for example, repeatedly cite a particular creator as talented, either directly by name or indirectly by his or her works, the new member is likely to adopt a similar stance. At least until they have a chance to analyze that creator’s work more critically themselves. Everything could be under consideration: from “is it acceptable to consider a creator’s political views when reviewing her or his work” to “is it okay to call a creator by his or her first name?”

During this learning process, the new fan will also observe how fans act and react to other fans. They will learn who others consider the Big Name Fans (BNFs): that is, who is most respected and who has the most authority within the group. Interestingly, these BNFs are often those individuals who are themselves most closely aligned with the group’s prototype. Because these individuals have a larger than average number of those most highly valued traits among the group, they are generally afforded the most respect within it. It should be noted that the BNFs demonstrate those traits through active participation (a topic to which I devote a later chapter) and accruing cultural capital (another chapter-worthy topic) accordingly.

Online user studies suggest the extent to which people watch and learn the norms of a group. Jakob Nielsen noted that, “In most online communities, 90% of users are lurkers who never contribute, 9% of users contribute a little, and 1% of users account for almost all the action.” This points to the notion that a vast majority of people (99%) are spending most of their time with the group simply observing how the most active 1% behaves. Some of those lurking users are almost certainly either looking for a specific piece of information, or seeing if the group is one worth joining—neither are likely to consider themselves members of the group and, in that respect, don’t really factor into our notion of comic fandom. But the overwhelmingly lopsidedness of the equation, even accounting for those non-members, shows just how significant the impact of those prototypical members can be, and how much they can contribute to the overall group dynamic.

In many ways, I consider my induction into comic fandom proper well-timed because it didn’t occur until I was well into my twenties, allowing me to more consciously observe the process at work. I’ll share my own experiences here to highlight what I’ve been discussing.

Although I’ve been reading comics as long as I can remember, it wasn’t until my eleventh birthday that I became really enthusiastic about them. Among other things, I received a copy Fantastic Four #254 and it was so mind-boggling powerful to my pre-pubescent brain that I was hooked almost instantly. I started actively scouting down back issues; I got a subscription through the publisher, Marvel, to make sure I didn’t miss new issues; the very first check I wrote soon afterwards was to Mile High Comics for $15.00 worth of back issues. In my own mind, I was most definitely a fan.

Except no one knew it. I couldn’t drive myself, so my trips to comic shops were sporadic at best. I knew only a couple people who read comics at all in school, and they weren’t really fans so much as casual readers. My questions sent in to other fans (whose addresses were printed in comics’ letters pages) went unanswered. I couldn’t afford to keep up with fanzines as well as the comics themselves, closing that avenue of discussion for me. So even though I considered myself a fan, I was not a part of the larger body of comic book fandom.

Once I began really interacting with other comics folks through some of the early Internet chat rooms and message boards on America Online, I learned, by trial and error, how not to jump into a chat room with a comic creator and start blasting them with questions. I learned how and when a back-and-forth message board discussion that’s veered wildly off the original topic needs to be taken to another forum. I learned how fans shared knowledge and trivia about the stories they’d read. Sometimes I’d jump in with my own thoughts and comments, but only after I had spent some time watching and reading others’ messages. I didn’t make an attempt to play the game until I had learned the rules. It was by holding back and paying attention to what was going on that I learned how best to interact with this community. And, while I moved from AOL to Internet message boards, most of the same characteristics remained in place, regardless of who was running that particular board. Furthermore, those characteristics remained in place as I began frequenting comic book shops regularly enough to be recognized on sight. I had internalized the notion of what it meant to be a comic book fan and found that it carried me in good stead if I were online or in person, talking with old friends or complete strangers. As long as we were all comic book fans, we could all rely on fandom’s unspoken rules of engagement and get along just fine.

There’s a curious contemporary anecdote to highlight how the salience of an outgroup’s characteristics can change what some of those rules of engagement might be. Science fiction fans began holding conventions long in advance of their comic counterparts. Indeed, comic conventions sprang fairly directly out of science fiction ones, a fact which is owed to a fair amount of overlap between the two groups. While not exactly the same, their similarities allow for a bridge from the comic ingroup to the science fiction outgroup. Thus, many conventions over the years have featured both science fiction and comic book components, and there were relatively few complaints from comicdom. But when Comic-Con International began hosting movie-based events, comic fans became upset. And when Twilight fans came to CCI because of events catered almost exclusively for them, comic fans became outraged.

Well, last year Twilight caused an absolute Beatles-mania sh*t show with tween girls and their Twi-hard moms camped outside the convention center’s Hall H for hours upon hours in order to get one of the 6000-or-so seats inside.
—Erik Davis, Cinematical

Anyone who attended last year’s Comic-Con can attest to how much of a cluster-fuck was caused by Twilight’s presentation in Hall H. Hundreds of tweens and Twilight Moms/Dads camped overnight to be the first ones into Hall H. By the time the ‘normal people’ began to line up hours before doors were set to open, thousands of Twilighters were already in line.
—Peter Sciretta, /Film

This type of reaction was fairly common and much more visceral than typical complaints about programming issues at a major convention.

Many attributed the reaction to the predominantly female audience that Twilight brings, compared with the predominantly male audience most American comic books bring. However, that’s only partially accurate. It would be more appropriate to note that the group of fans who appreciate Twilight differ substantially from fans who appreciate the mainstream comic books or science fiction typically found at American comic conventions with regard to what they consider important characteristics of their respective fandoms. One example might be that Twilight fans are more accepting of open displays of emotion, as opposed to comic fandom’s comparatively more reserved nature. The differences between the two fan bases are significant and note-worthy enough for comic fans to consider “Twilghters” a decided outgroup, despite both groups being fairly similar conceptually. Both groups, after all, enjoy commercialized escapist fantasies that explore human dynamics through supernatural beings.

Perhaps more interesting to note, however, is that the Twilight fans, while always an outgroup to comic fandom, were essentially insignificant initially. There was knowledge they existed and, even if comic fans didn’t “get” Twilight, they generally accepted those who did. As far as comic fans were concerned, there was no perceptible overlap in any salient characteristics, so their outgroup status was recognizable, but unimportant. As Twilight fans began “encroaching” on comic fans’ territory—namely Comic-Con International—comicdom’s evaluation of the threat level changed substantially. The Twilight fans were literally entering into territory that was once reserved for comic fandom. What was once an inconsequential characteristic (where a Twilight fan happened to stand) became a decidedly more relevant one in light of a comic fan’s characteristic (where she or he was trying to get to). Although not exactly justifiable, it was only after that single characteristic was directly challenged that other differences in traits became “problems.”

Also of interest is that Twilight fans did not display the same open hostility towards comic fans (except, perhaps, in instances of self-defense). As Twilight fans, relatively new as a collective group, had no prior territory to call their own, they had no qualms sharing space with another fandom. A comic book convention was as suitable a gathering place as horror convention or a science fiction convention, as far as they were concerned; they were largely pleased to simply have a physical location to share their enthusiasm together.

This should have been entirely expected. In fact, there are reports from early science fiction conventions that expressed much the same sentiment about comic book fans that comic fans are currently displaying towards Twilight fans. Communications of the time limited the scale of and reporting on the events, but the general attitude is similar. In Comic Art #1, Dick Lupoff alluded to “some petty ill will” directed towards comic fans at the 1960 Philcon. Other comic book fans would recall the same types of sentiments years later...

Most [science fiction] fans looked down their noses at comics—and with some justification. After all, sf fandom had been given a bad name (as had sf itself) by the public media association of science fiction with ‘Superman’ and ‘Buck Rogers,’ which were very bad sf, irrespective of their merits as comics.
—Ted White, Squa Tront #9

The argument could be made, of course, that Twilight is a single intellectual property, whereas comics and science fiction are much more broad, encompassing any number of properties. Wouldn’t it be more appropriate to compare Twilight fans to, say, Batman fans? And, for that matter, wouldn’t Batman fans noticeably differ from fans of Tintin or Naruto? I’ll cover that in the next chapter.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Us vs. Them, Part 1

One of the most tumultuous times for the comic industry on the whole was the mid-1950s, when comics were under a seemingly constant barrage of attacks from any number of people looking for a juvenile delinquency scapegoat. Similar problems erupted more-or-less simultaneously in several countries, and comic book fans were frequently bewildered by the hatred and venom being shot at their beloved medium. Not only were comics collected and burned, but those who dealt with the medium were, at best, looked down upon. Retailers selling comics were boycotted. Creators whose livelihood came from creating comic books had to start making up other occupations when asked what they did for a living if they didn’t want to be shunned out of town. Children began hiding their comics under their mattresses, lest their parents confiscate and destroy them. The industry, collectively, had to ban together to deflect attacks from people no less powerful than the U.S. Senate. Although a few (notably EC publisher Bill Gaines) tried continuing their fights solo, it was ultimately those who joined together who were able to survive in the comic book industry. They saw the conflict very much in an “Us versus Them” mentality, and came to the conclusion that their only hope was to ally themselves under a united banner.

The basic story is indeed quite old. Two different groups meet and, out of ignorance, don’t understand one another. This lack of understanding leads to conflict, and individuals near the conflict are frequently demanded to choose a side. “Are you with us or against us? Are you one of us or one of them?”

Although this is often seen in terms of larger conflicts (i.e. war) it applies to almost all sizes and sorts of group dynamics. Think of the traditional cliques that spring up in school: jocks, nerds, slackers, etc. Regardless of what the groups are actually called and the precise roles they play within the school, they’re continually generated year after year, decade after decade. My high school had fairly small graduating classes of around 100 students each year, and yet nearly everyone still had a group they fit in with, almost to the mutual exclusivity of others. Acceptance into one group almost inherently prevented acceptance into another. The clique you associated with became your “us” and everyone else became “them.”

This type of intergroup discrimination, exhibited in some manner in different cultures throughout the world, was studied at length by Henri Tajfel and John Turner, who developed it into their theory of social identity.

The basic theory suggests a fairly simple model of human organization. In fact, it’s not that far removed from the classic “us versus them” discussion: a person views others as part of their ingroup or an outgroup. An ingroup can be described as just the collection of people who belong to the same group as the individual in question; for the purposes of this book, that will generally be “comic book fans.” Everyone not a member of the ingroup is, therefore, part of an outgroup.

The distinction is not actually as binary as it might appear at first. If we assume our ingroup is that of comic book fans, an obvious outgroup would be “people who hate comic books.” But another outgroup might be “people who are indifferent to comic books.” Another might be “fans of Joss Whedon who read/watch everything he writes, regardless of the medium.” People in this last group will have read some Astonishing X-Men comics, but might not care about Colossus and Kitty Pryde’s relationship beyond what Whedon himself wrote. Nor about John Cassaday’s art. Or the collectibility of multiple cover versions of the comics themselves. Their sole interest might be Whedon’s writing and they would never consider themselves comic book fans, despite making any number of trips to their local comic book shop while tracking down his work.

As transmedia becomes more commonplace, we are likely to see more and more people who would not be considered comic book fans buying comics. In 2006, Frank Beddor began releasing his “Looking Glass Wars” story to the world. It was initially touted as a trilogy of prose novels, based loosely around Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland books. Beddor, however, was an early adopter of transmedia storytelling and didn’t limit himself to prose. There was also a massively multiplayer online (MMO) game, a soundtrack, a webcomic and multiple printed comic book series; all of which advance and elaborate on the overall story in their own fashion without retreading on other material. People who read the first novel came to his website, looking for more information, and were shocked to find there was a comic book series out as well. Some comments from the official message board include:

I apologise if this is said in another thread. But how long have to comics been out? And how many are there? Until i found this site, i didn’t know that any of these things existed!

Anyone know where i could get a copy of the first and or 2nd comic cuz i’ve searched and can’t seem to find them anywhere.
—Sir Pyros

I can’t even find it! I suppose I could special order it through Walden’s, but where did you guys find it?

im not a comic book reader never liked them. Sorry. But i am in love with lgw and is the hatter comics worth my money or time?

It’s mature stuff...definitely not quite the same demographic as the book
—Her Imperial Viciousness

It’s plainly evident in reading through the message forums that good number of people who were actively seeking out more information about “Looking Glass Wars” were, at least in some cases, at a complete loss for where to even look for a comic book. Others were skeptical. Clearly, many of these people who were actively seeking out the comics were not fans of the medium (as they were showcasing ignorance or even hostility towards it) but were nonetheless eager to track down the comics out of their enthusiasm for “Looking Glass Wars” material. Not surprisingly, there were also comic book fans who bought and enjoyed the series, but I use this example to illustrate that while the “Us versus Them” mentality is an example of an ingroup/outgroup dynamic, it is by no means a mutually exclusive one.

Let’s look at the ingroup more closely, as the outgroup is largely defined as “what the ingroup isn’t.”

As I discussed on my chapter about defining fandom, the group that we’re discussing is largely self-identified. Henri Tajfel and John Turner noted in their original writings on the subject that such a group is, “a collection of individuals who perceive themselves to be members of the same social category, share some emotional involvement in this common definition of themselves, and achieve some degree of social consensus about the evaluation of their group and of their membership of it.” Putting that in terms of comic fandom specifically, they’re saying that comic book fans have a pretty good understanding of what it is to be a comic book fan. The fact that they’ve spent as much time and put forth as much energy into comic books as they have means, in part, that they’ve gained some understanding of what the nature of fandom is. That understanding is shared within the body of fandom, generally by way of example. A person stepping into comic book fandom for the first time picks up on the customs and mores of the group and, over time, adopts them in an effort to become more of a member of that group. Those who continually and/or willfully disregard the basic commonalities of fandom are rejected from the group in some manner.

Groups start over a common interest; in this case, enthusiasm for comic books. There is a high degree of likelihood that many fans came to appreciate the medium for the same, or at least similar, reasons. It is, therefore, a reasonable assumption that these fans also share similar traits amongst themselves that allow them to appreciate the same form of entertainment. Those commonalities then form the basis of those customs and mores, which are inherent in a majority of the group members anyway. The prototypical comic book fan begins to emerge.

Although it conventionally refers to the first instance of an object, a prototype here is meant as a perfectly typical example. In literature, the term “archetype” might be more appropriate; however, that particular word was already being used in psychology and “prototype” was used to avoid confusion. Since I’m discussing fans from that perspective, I’ll also use “prototype” here.

Monday, December 7, 2009

A Brief History, Part 2

Within twelve months, comic fandom also saw the publication of other fanzines such as Don and Maggie Thompson’s Comic Art, coming out days after Alter-Ego #1 and focusing on the comic medium as a whole; G.B. Love’s The Rocket’s Blast, also created without knowledge of A-E’s existence; The Comicollector, an adzine spun out from A-E; On the Drawing Boards, a newszine spun out from A-E; and Joe Pilati’s Smudge, which featured future underground comix artists such as Jay Lynch and Skip Williamson. The fans who were creating these publications were also getting letters published and frequently writing amongst themselves. They formed a sort of correspondence community.

I have been grossly underestimating the size of comic fandom, and considering it a subsidiary of SF fandom. It is possible that I read through ALTER EGO #1 & 2 too quickly, but the first inkling I had of the size of CF was COMIC READER #12 and then COMICOLLECTOR #7... I had considered A-E and other such zines to be the results of Double-Fans -- those who were both comic and SF fans. It took the recent zines to show me my mistake.
—Bruce Pelz, The Comic Reader #13

It was Ronn Foss who first began bringing the fans together in person. In travelling across the country, he would make stops at the homes of other comic fans, chatting with them in person and going over their collections. Bails followed suit during his professional trips. But in 1964, Bails found the ballots he received for the Alley Awards (the first awards formally given out for outstanding achievement in comics) were too numerous to count himself, so he invited many of his friends and acquaintances from comicdom for a party at his house to help tally them all. Almost two dozen people from various states showed up, making the event the first significant comic fan gathering. It would only be another two months before the first bona fide comic convention took place, in Detroit, Michigan. There, over a dozen dealers sold their wares, door prizes were awarded, and the H.G. Wells movie Things To Come was shown.

Within a few years, interest in comics and comics fandom was springing up all over the world. Comic conventions began cropping up from New York to Detroit to Houston to Oakland, attracting professionals like Otto Binder, Archie Goodwin, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. New fanzine titles were coming out every month and underground comix began taking root in both in the U.S. and abroad; cartoonists like Robert Crumb and Gilbert Shelton were almost as famous in the Netherlands as they were in America. Fanzines and comix became the proving grounds for future creators across the globe like Joost Swarte, Alfredo Castelli, Brian Bolland and Vaughn Bodé.

This increased communication encouraged fans to become even more organized. The first attempt at making a formal price guide came out in 1965. In 1968, Carl Gafford founded the United Fanzine Organization, a co-op for minicomic creators. The following year, Dean Motter, Ron Sutton and Ron Kasman helped form a comic club for students at York University in Toronto. Enterprising fans like Bud Plant, Chuck Rozanski, Dick Swan and Robert Beerbohm began dedicated comic shops and mail order businesses.

Beginning in the early 1970s, comics fandom started becoming a business in its own right. Stanley Blair, a newcomer to fandom, started a weekly adzine called Stan’s Weekly Express. That it came out regularly and frequently sent its circulation into the thousands very quickly. As an adzine, it inevitably ran into problems with mail fraud and Blair took up the task of making sure the perpetrators were caught. A stroke, however, removed him from fandom for a time and, during that hiatus, Alan Light stepped in to publish The Buyer’s Guide to Comics Fandom (now simply called Comics Buyer’s Guide, behind Netherlands’ Stripschrift, it is the second-longest running comic magazine still in publication) to fill that niche. Blair returned and focused on continuing fraud investigations within comicdom, establishing a formal organization, the WSA (an abbreviation of Stan’s Weekly Express Seal of Approval) and restitution processes for comic fans experiencing issues of fraud. The program served as an ersatz Better Business Bureau for the comic fandom industry while it was moving from amateur to professional capabilities.

The WSA Program will investigate all mail-fraud cases; members against nonmembers, members against members, or nonmembers against members. It is a rare instance when we receive a complaint regarding a WSA member.
—Ron Frantz, 1976 WSA Board of Directors Meeting

The process of moving fandom into a business was progressing around the globe by the mid-1970s. Comic-Con International, the largest and most successful U.S. comic convention, was relatively well established by then and was drawing about 5,000 fans each year, a number which would grow to over twenty times that amount by 2005. The Angoulême International Comics Festival in France began in 1974 with Maurice Tillieux, André Franquin, Burne Hogarth and Harvey Kurtzman in attendance, and presented a more prestigious international flavor to comic awards. The following year saw the introduction of Tokyo’s Comiket, a convention devoted exclusively to dōjinshi, self-published manga often illegally featuring “borrowed” characters from existing anime and manga. These last two conventions did well financially and grew, respectively bringing in a quarter and half million attendees with each show now.

The distinction between strictly fan activities and the fandom industry became harder to define. Gary Groth took The Nostalgia Journal fanzine and morphed it into The Comics Journal magazine by 1977. Bails’ original mimeographed The Comic Reader became a for-profit magazine with offset printing. The Thompsons’ Newfangles fanzine got absorbed into Light’s Buyers Guide, which he eventually sold to Krause Publications allegedly for $500,000 in 1983. The new comics magazines that were coming out (e.g. Amazing Heroes, Comics Feature, Hero Illustrated) were soon being printed in full color and sold on newsstands. Comic Book Marketplace launched its premier issue with a circulation in excess of 23,000. Comics that were being bought and sold at dedicated comic shops were increasingly from smaller and smaller publishers, many of them effectively being operations run by a single individual. The cheaper costs of printing and production meant that it no longer required the fortunes of a major corporation or wealthy financial backer to start up as a publisher. The comics that once would have been relegated to small press runs of an obscure fanzine could be printed and distributed as independent comics and would look, for all the world, to have the same production values as anything from a major publisher.

Though originally established in 1980 as a means of electronic communication, it wasn’t until 1987 that Usenet really became functionally attractive enough for comics fans. Usenet is essentially a global messaging system available on the Internet, and provided the ability for people to have discussions with anyone on the planet in an organized fashion. The number and variety of groupings on Usenet was rather confusing initially, and it was in 1987 that a more cohesive hierarchy was established, providing a category for recreation and a subcategory for comics. This provided a central, if virtual, location for comic fans to gather and discuss their hobby. As the group continued to grow, it broke off deeper subcategories for comic strips, X-Men, ElfQuest, Vertigo, selling/trading, alternative comics, etc.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, commercial Internet providers such as America Online, Delphi and CompuServe took some of their ideas from Usenet, while adding real-time virtual chatting capabilities and online file storage. They structured their message boards similarly, adding a decidedly graphic element to them. It also provided publishers with an opportunity to create their own virtual spaces, which did a little to help re-distinguish the boundaries between fans and professionals since it required money and some technical skill, neither of which most fans had. Comic creators, though, still appeared in these forums as essentially no different than fans.

As the World Wide Web’s importance began to outstrip individual commercial endeavors, though, pricing became cheaper and more user-friendly tools started becoming available. People and businesses began moving into their own virtual environments throughout the 1990s. Fans began setting up their own web-based discussion boards and posting sites devoted to a single character or title. Issue reviewers and comic news reporters like Matt Brady and Rich Johnston moved their articles from Usenet to their own websites. Columnists and freelance writers detailed their thoughts on their own blogs and through social media sites.

Thanks to today’s global communication capabilities, the connectivity comic fans have today is amazingly pervasive, especially when compared to fandom’s infancy. Fans and creators alike are able to work and interact with others from around the world and David O’Connell is able to produce and sell his Tozo: The Public Servant comic internationally just as readily as Shary Flenniken once gave away her mimeographed, 4-page Sky River Funnies to Oregonians. Being a part of fandom is no longer just connecting with other fans, but selecting which fans you want to connect with. You aren’t limited to talking with your neighbor about a book you’re only vaguely aware of when you have the option now to speak with other fans of your favorite title anywhere around the globe.