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.