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.

Friday, December 4, 2009

A Brief History, Part 1

One thing I specifically wanted to avoid in this book is making it a history project. In the first place, other authors have already written more extensively on the subject than I could. In the second place, I have a greater interest in the psychological and sociological aspects of fandom. I’m less interested in the Big Name Fans than who fans are generally and how they interact with one another. That said, I think it is important to include some history of fandom here to provide context. With this chapter, I will touch on some of fandom’s highlights from the past several decades; however, for a more detailed look at the history of comic book fandom, please consult some of the texts I cite at the end of the book.

It's worth noting, too, that comic fandom’s history is primarily the work of white males in the United States. The U.S. had arguably the best cultural resources to develop fandom in the first place and Caucasian men tended to exercise their authority almost to the exclusivity of others.

I wasn’t selected to be on the nominating committee of the Alley Awards. Don and I had been in the field the same length of time, had the same input, and Don was on the committee and I wasn’t. And I said, “Hm. Interesting.”
—Maggie Thompson, The Golden Age of Comic Fandom

Though I’ve tried to ensure some measure of parity throughout the book, much of what’s written here is reflective of what’s available; that is to say that what this book might lack in balance is due, at least in part, to a lack of balance in both the comic industry and fandom on the whole.

Fans of one type or another have been around since people began having enough time to think about something more than survival. But the type of fandom that comic fans might begin to recognize as something similar to our own began in the pages of Hugo Gernsback’s publication Amazing Stories. In 1926, he began the magazine as the first one devoted entirely to science fiction. The following year, he instituted a regular letter column called “Discussions” and published the names and addresses of those people whose letters he published. This provided science fiction fans with their first opportunity to speak with other fans. Amazing’s manager editor, David Lasser, saw the significance of fans being able to connect with one another and used his position to help launch the Scienceers, science fiction’s first formal fan club, in 1929. The following year saw science fiction’s first fanzine, The Comet (later renamed Cosmology).

The significance of including the early history of science fiction fandom might be questioned here, until one learns of some of the early members of the group. The Comet was created and edited by Raymond A. Palmer, who would become the namesake of DC’s character The Atom in 1961. Julius Schwartz and Mort Weisinger, both later to become editors at DC Comics, helped conceive and bring to life the science fiction fanzine The Time Traveller in 1932. Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, creators of Superman, came out with their own fanzine, Science Fiction, later that same year. A frequent fanzine contributor throughout the 1930s, Eando Binder was the pen name of Earl and Otto Binder; Otto going on to write many comic books for Fawcett including twelve year’s worth of Captain Marvel.

Also providing early crossover bridges between science fiction and comic fandoms were people like David A. Kyle. In 1936, Kyle’s fanzine, Fantasy World, mostly featured original science fiction comic strips and he quickly began using the subtitle “Cartoons of Imagination.” Jimmy Taurasi had two fanzines, Fantasy News and Fantasy Times, which, while primarily consisting of science fiction information, also included comic book news from time to time, noting items such as the litigation issues surrounding Victor Fox’s Wonder Man. Taurasi even managed to get word out about Amazing Man Comics before it was actually published.

Comics themselves did begin having something of a dialogue with their readers in the 1940s. Promotions tagged with the likenesses of Canada Jack, Captain America or Little Orphan Annie got kids to join patriotic organizations like the Canada Jack Club, the Sentinels of Liberty or the Junior Commandos, where they created small, local, informal groups of fans of the comics. Joe Simon later noted that Sentinel of Liberty clubs were formed “by the hundreds.” In Mexico, Guillermo Marin encouraged readers to send in story ideas and personal photos, which he would publish in Pepín. That title and others such as Chamaco and Paquín also ran contests periodically, getting fans to send in drawings of their favorite characters and stories as a means of encouraging feedback.

However, since comic books themselves did not, at that time, print fans’ addresses, science fiction fandom remained essentially the only vehicle though which comic fans could interact with each other at something other than a local scale, and those fans were primarily science fiction fans who simply happened to like comics. It wasn’t until 1947 that Mal Willits and Jim Bradley published The Comic Collector’s News, the first fanzine devoted only to comics. A few years later, though, they dropped it in favor of a science fiction fanzine, Destiny, which included extended articles on H.P. Lovecraft and the like.

This emphasis on horror and science fiction, not surprisingly, began to coalesce around EC Comics, as they had began introducing books like The Crypt of Terror, The Vault of Horror and The Haunt of Fear in 1950 and started running fans’ letters and addresses in the backs of the comics. Taurasi began working on a new fanzine, Fantasy-Comics, in 1952 that focused on these types of science fiction and horror books, of which EC was the most predominant publisher. The EC Fan Bulletin from Bhob Stewart came out the following year, focusing specifically on the EC stable of books as the title implies. It was Stewart’s work that inspired numerous imitators, and was allegedly the impetus for publisher Bill Gaines to create the official EC Fan-Addict Club.

It wasn’t until 1958, though, that a concerted effort towards coalescing comic fandom on the whole began falling into place. A long-time fan of the old Justice Society of America, Jerry Bails saw that the Flash character had been revived, after a fashion, and he began writing letters to editor Julie Schwartz and writer Gardner Fox suggesting that they revive the entire JSA. The eventual revival, now called the Justice League of America, intrigued a young Roy Thomas to write in to Schwartz, asking about obtaining back issues. Schwartz referred Thomas to Fox, who referred him to Bails. Thomas and Bails began an enthusiastic and ongoing dialogue through the mail, and soon conceived of the idea of a “JLA newsletter.” Bails was encouraged by Schwartz and began sending letters to other fans whose letters had also been published. Further encouraged, Bails and Thomas put together their first fanzine, and Alter-Ego #1 was mailed out in early 1961 to an enthusiastic reception.