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.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Defining Fandom, Part 1

The first task necessary in analyzing something as amorphous as comic book fandom is to define who exactly we need to look at. Who are these people generally defined as comic book fans, and how can they be readily identified and studied? Coming to such a conclusion isn’t nearly as tidy as one would hope.

In the first place, comic book publishers do not have handy databases of their readers. Most comics are purchased through third party retailers, not through the classic subscription services some publishers offer. Even during the headiest days of comic subscriptions, many were still bought from newsstands and drug stores. Publishers’ websites and online forums (both of which are a recent addition to comics’ marketing mix anyway) generally do not require any sort of registration. Fan letters written in to publishers sometimes—but not always—contained information that might be useful in identifying readers, but that information was largely discarded after a small handful of letters had been typeset for publication.

There have been multiple attempts at fandom directories over the years, and ones that continue today. But the number of names and addresses these generate is often only the smallest percentage of sales of even a single comic, and are clearly inadequate for trying to define the entirety of fandom. The entire roster of the WSA Program (more on this in the next chapter) never broke 1,500 members throughout the 1970s and was eventually disbanded entirely in the mid-1980s. The Fandom Directory, which began boasting “over 20,000” listings in 1992, still admits that almost half of the entries are, in fact, retailers.

Let’s take a step back and look at what fandom is on a more general level.

The term “hobby” first appeared in relation to the “hobby horse”—an artificial horse used originally in a specific type of dance. By the 1500s, the term broadened a bit to include any sort of mock horse and it was frequently used to speak of a child’s toy (as children were the ones who had the most use of fake horses). It took about a century for the word “hobby” to stand on its own and carry the meaning we generally associate with it today, with the original tie being that, like a hobby horse, one’s hobbies don’t really go anywhere.

The reason, of course, that a term like hobby was needed was because people began to develop technology sufficiently advanced enough that they weren’t required to focus on their survival every waking moment. While there was certainly entertainment earlier than the sixteenth century, there was still a great deal of time spent in making it to the next day. What free time one might have had could be spent in hobby-like pursuits, but not in sufficient quantity to really need a name for it. One could hardly say they played cards as a hobby if they only played once in a while; it would have been considered a pastime at most.

Technology continued to improve, though, and provide people with more free time. People not only had enough time to pursue an outside interest, but they could afford to pursue it often enough and with enough intensity that something stronger than “hobby” was needed to express the greater enthusiasm one put towards a favored distraction.

A “fan” is, according to Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, is “an ardent admirer or enthusiast.” There are differing accounts of how the word came in to common usage, although the two most plausible origins stem from the words “fancy” (having a liking towards something) and/or “fanatic” (one who is excessively enthusiastic about a topic). As both possibilities result in similar connotations, and were in common usage around the same time, I won’t belabor the argument here. Regardless, the word “fan” came in to common usage itself in the late 1800s, meaning essentially the same thing that it means today.

“Fandom” then begins cropping up as a term in the early 1900s; the simple “-dom” suffix signifying the realm of all fans. Since fans are not necessarily located in a single geographic location, though, this realm is more metaphoric in nature. The collection of all fans, wherever they might be.

Comic book fandom is, thus, everyone who is a fan of comic books.

Of course, that etymological lesson still does little to help us narrow down just who exactly is a fan of comic books.

Some might argue that there are a number of noticeable or distinctive traits that could be used in ascertaining someone’s status as a comic book fan. The number of comics they own, perhaps? Or their ability to recall sequences and/or passages of text from specific issues? The frequency with which they contribute to fanzines or message boards or letters pages? Maybe their attire?

The problem with all these ideas, though, is that they can only suggest someone’s enthusiasm. Maybe the Spider-Man t-shirt they’re wearing is because they enjoyed the cartoons the character appeared in, despite never having read the comic. Maybe they are able to quietly enjoy the comics by themselves, without feeling the need to participate in active discussion forums. (In 2006, web expert Jakob Nielsen pointed out that participation inequality—where the vast majority of users always remain passive observers—continues online much as it had in offline precedence. This is similar to the Pareto principle, more commonly known as the 80-20 Rule: 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes.) Reciting dialogue from an issue only points to a reader’s recall capabilities, and any comics actually owned could easily have been inherited or come from the by-product of working in a business with which the person has no emotional link whatsoever.

Many people have noted all of these concerns, and have come to the consensus that the only criteria to being a fan is that of self-declaration. Being able to earnestly state, “I am a comic book fan,” is sufficient for inclusion in comic book fandom. Indeed, as the nature of being a fan necessarily is defined as an individual’s enthusiasm, which is wholly personal and subjective, coupled with the fact that every individual expresses their enthusiasm in a wide array of personal and subjective ways, it makes sense that self-identification is the most accurate means of gauging whether or not someone is a comic book fan.

A fan is, I guess, expressing passion for project X, you know? Let’s call it that.
—Ryan Sohmer, Participate

I do agree with this on a theoretical level, but I feel that it falls a little short in practice. While it might be sufficient for other fandoms (e.g. Star Trek, Apple and Coca-Cola) I think there are some unique aspects of the comic industry that make such a qualification potentially misleading.

Let me explain by way of a personal anecdote.

Friday, November 27, 2009


The interest in fandoms of all sorts has been gaining traction in recent years and, as someone who’s had an interest in the subject for quite some time, I am thrilled to see so much attention given to the topic. However, the discussions I have been seeing have generally fallen into one of three camps: historical recountings, examinations of very particular exhibitions of fandom, and strictly academic papers. While all three areas are laudable and well-worth studying in their own rights, there has yet to be (so far as I can tell) a “definitive” text written on the subject of comic fandom for your average fan.

Historical accounts frequently focus on the dealings of a handful of specific individuals personally known by the writer, and often follow the exploits of relatively local communities and select groups, with nods towards national trends by citing the works of Big Name Fans. These works are generally very genuine and provide a wealth of details about certain niches within fandoms, but they’re inherently limited to those people who are/were most active in fan communities. The people who publish fanzines and organize conventions and get interviewed in the local paper. While those individuals are undoubtably fans and their work within fan circles is note-worthy, it glosses over the many more fans who might buy their favorite comics every week and just chat amongst a small group of friends. While the Big Name Fans can and often do have a greater impact on the direction of fandom as a whole, without the hundreds of thousands of other fans you’ve never heard of, there would effectively be no fandom at all. While I do cite some fans by name throughout the book, my efforts here are intended to speak towards all comic fans, regardless of their relative notoriety.

The way fandom exhibits itself in unique instances is certainly useful for studying the particulars of how a LiveJournal fan fiction community acts, for example, but is too narrow in scope to provide a view of comic book fandom as a whole. Even Dr. Fredric Wertham, whose unscientific and intentionally incendiary Seduction of the Innocent caused the comic book industry so many problems in the 1940s, seemed to later recognize that the positive and creative self-expression seen in fanzines was not necessarily representative of comic fans as a whole. The individual works that come out of fandom and the small fan communities that they sprout from are, again, note-worthy but neglect the hundreds of thousands who still consider themselves part of fandom but cannot or do not participate in such a manner. I do address this participatory culture in one of the later chapters, but most of this book remains applicable to all fans at all levels of engagement with the rest of comicdom.

Finally, academic papers about fandom are, well, academic by their nature and tend not to be very accessible by the general population. This is, in part, because of implicit and explicit requirements academic researchers need to follow in order to get published. They need to go through tedious (to non-academics) explanations of their methodologies, account for all data outlying a normal distribution curve and provide far math than many people care to deal with on any given day. Many are also difficult to read because their authors are scientists primarily, and not writers. Their language and sentence structure can sometimes come across as stiff and unengaging. I have more experience as a writer and less as a scientist which, if I’m doing my job right, will make this book for a smoother read. While informative, this book takes a more narrative approach with pulled-from-the-real-world stories.

The flip-side of that coin, however, is that the work I present here is primarily built on the research of others. The interviews and surveys I conducted would almost surely not pass muster in an academic environment. They might provide colorful and comic-specific anecdotes, but I’m not attempting to prove any of my own theories, nor am I looking to further validate or even elaborate on the scientific research that’s already been done. Rather, I’ve taken stock of many of the prevailing ideas that might be considered relevant to studying large groups of people, and tried to apply those ideas to comic book fandom. I’ve tried to cite the scientists whose work has informed my thinking and explain their ideas, and then follow that up with examples particular to comic fans.

If I’m not a behavioral scientist, then, who am I to write an entire book on the subject of fandom?

As you’ll learn as you read through this book, I’ve been “reading” comics since well before I knew how to read. Comics have simply been a part of my life as long as I can remember. However, once I began to establish a real self-identity and start to define myself as a comic book fan, I realized that there were other people who appreciated the medium much the way I did. The problem I soon discovered, though, was that I didn’t know any of them.

I grew up in a fairly small town and had fairly few friends. So it’s not surprising that I latched on to a hobby like comic books. But when I grew old enough to actively seek out others who shared my enjoyment for the medium, I found it difficult to connect with them. None of my friends particularly liked comics. The one pen pal I got from having a letter published seemed more interested in what he had to say than my thoughts or opinions. The fan group I joined by mail did provide a nice welcome package when I signed up, but I never heard from them again. A basic sense of introversion prevented me from striking up conversations at local conventions my father would drive me to. I read comic books in my bedroom by myself. Most of the discussions about comics that I had were with my father, whose interest was more in the art form than the latest adventures of the Silver Surfer. This great notion of fandom I had heard rumors about remained elusive.

College proved no different. While my friends were happy to chat about video games and science fiction, comics weren’t a pursuit any of them enjoyed. The one shop I was able to frequent for new issues was abysmal, with a manager who seemed more eager to kick people out of the store as fast as possible than take their money. And even my early forays online late in my college career seemed unable to help me really connect with other fans. I continued reading comic books in my bedroom by myself.

Eventually, however, I did begin connecting with other fans and really started to discover what comic fandom was about. As I was into my twenties by this point, it was a fascinating prospect to just start joining fandom and witness that process unfold. Never having been part of any fandom previously, I was able to ride the emotional highs of being accepted into the group as well as intellectually jot down the unwritten rules and bylaws. This thing called fandom, which had remained beyond my reach for so long, was as intellectually stimulating as it was simply enjoyable.

This set me on the path of finding out about comic fandom itself. Of which very little was written at the time. It wasn’t until the very late 1990s before works started seeping out of obscure academic journals and into something approximating more mainstream and accessible venues. The past ten years has seen a noted increase in an interest in fandom itself but, as I noted earlier, I have yet to find any works speaking to comic fans in a way that really looks at fandom in a comprehensive manner.

I don’t follow a single line of research in thinking about fandom. While much of it has been shaped by social identity theory, I also reference works by as wildly disparate people as Marshall McLuhan and Dr. Harry Harlow. An appendix in the back lists a number of works that I found directly useful in writing this book, but a comprehensive listing would have to include every non-fiction book or article I’ve ever read, every comic book I’ve ever read and every conversation about comics I’ve ever had. My approach to comicdom is generally a holistic one, and this book occasionally draws from unexpected sources from the social sciences to the humanities to, of course, pop culture itself.

When I first took the idea of this book to a publisher, he said that, in order to sell more than a handful of copies, it would have to be the Understanding Comics of fandom. It had to be more comprehensive in scope than what had come before. It had to be something more accessible than what had come before. It had to be something completely different than what had come before. Above all, it had to be something that could remain out in publication for a long time and continue to be relevant beyond the first year of its publication. It’s no small order, indeed, and I have to admit to more than a bit of trepidation of even attempting to write anything when he first told me that.

But it’s a fascinating subject and one that definitely deserves a book on the order he suggested. This is my attempt to fill that niche.

The book is structured with an increasingly narrowing focus. Although many authors who write on comic fandom take a chronological approach, this book tries to reach beyond the functional aspects of fans and get to the roots of who they are and why they gravitate towards each other in groups. I don’t want to simply showcase a series of examples of different fans; I intend for this to be a resource that can be used in understanding why a fan acts the way she or he does within fandom. Why are some activities permissible within fandom but others are not? What motivates an individual to participate and engage in fandom in the ways they do? How has the Internet really impacted the way fans act towards one another, if at all? Hence, the earliest chapters paint fandom with a broad brush, examining it in the most general sociological terms. Successive chapters elaborate on details, and switch to a more psychological perspective, focusing more on the individual than the group as a whole.

There are additionally scattered throughout the book a number of brief profiles of comic book fans, past and present. They are snapshots of individuals who run or have run in fan circles and can be read entirely independently of the main text. The ideas and theories mentioned elsewhere in the book can certainly be applied to them, but I leave it to you, the reader, to make your assessments and evaluations. While several of the fans profiled carry some name recognition by virtue of the work they contributed to comic fandom, others are likely people you haven’t heard of—people who enjoy or have enjoyed reading comics but have not necessarily participated in fandom to such an extent that you’d recognize them. As with the rest of the book, these profiles are collectively intended to provide a portrait of fandom en masse, and not merely the handful of people who were the most active. While some have had comic-related work professionally published, I’m focusing on the fan aspects of their lives. Consequently, you won’t see biographies of individuals whose professional work tends to overshadow their fan activities (e.g. Julie Schwartz, Roy Thomas and Jerry Ordway).

The conclusion at the end of the book wraps everything up, and provides some practical suggestions for taking the thoughts within this book forward into the real world. While much of the book speaks in terms of theory, there are some clear ways the ideas can be applied to your dealings with comic book fans, whether those are in the form of a one-on-one encounter, a small gathering at a comic book shop or the throngs of people that descend on a comic book convention.

This book is not intended to be a guide to fandom by simply listing a series of traits that all comic fans have. Such a list cannot exist because comic fans are ultimately a collection of individuals, each bringing their own thoughts and ideologies to their favorite medium. There are myriad of reasons someone might become a comic book fan. Some come by way of their cultural heritage, others come by way of the times in which they live. The rationale is infinitely mutable and I don’t try to claim authority over all fans’ reasonings for liking comics. Each fan has his or her own individual positive reaction that brings them to becoming enthusiastic about comics, and it is after that point where I feel we can start to examine them...