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 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.