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, 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.