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.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Circles of Tribalism, Part 2

This then points to the structure—or lack thereof—within the broad definition of comic book fandom. Batman might sell a copy of each issue to 100,000 fans every month, but those 100,000 people break up into much smaller groups to enjoy and discuss the issue with one another. There might be a group of a dozen that meet up at the local library once or twice a month. There might be 100 or so over at one message board, and another 100 at another board. DC Comics has their own official message board set up for Batman discussions, which attract another crowd of fans. Others are likely using social media sites to conduct their discussions. Still others might limit themselves to private emails. The point is, of course, that there is not merely a single outlet for fans to get together and share their appreciation of Batman. Individuals will seek out other like-minded fans and congregate when and where they can find one another.

Comiket was founded as an alternative meeting for people that broke from the manga taikai. They wanted to have the freedom of expression, to be able to parody, criticize and rewrite established works.
—Ichikawa Koichi, The Otaku Encyclopedia

Each of these smallish groups acts more or less independently, as outlined in the previous chapter. Each has their own social rules and mores they follow, and each group’s overall character is slightly different. However, many of the ideas are the same or similar since, after all, they are all united by the same appreciation of the same character(s). Will Brooker, in Batman Unmasked, drove home the point that, regardless of the specific interpretation of the character, there remains some unifying traits common among every iteration and every reading of the character. Whether any individual reader responds more strongly to the detective aspect or the martial arts expert angle or latent homosexual readings or simply the diverse cast of supporting characters, the unifying traits are the larger portion of what’s being responded to, which then provides a commonality among all Batman fans, regardless of why they first enjoyed it.

As in ‘The Batman Nobody Knows’, each participant argues for his or her own interpretation over the others, regardless of its improbability—Julie Madison’s hero would be eighty years old, after all—and when Batman, shadowy and noble, appears to free them, each reads from him only what suits them: the beauty of a former sweetheart, a ‘faar out’ old amigo or a dude in ‘wicked armor’. It is a sweet, generous story and, I think, in some ways symptomatic of DC’s current willingness to allow a little play with the rules of the Dark Knight.
—Will Brooker, Batman Unmasked

Each of the several hundred informal Batman fan groups in existence are acting independently; however, it’s almost certain that some fans travel in multiple groups, thus allowing cross-communication among them. Similarly, some Batman fans likely also travel in other non-Batman fan groups, such as those who enjoy Action Comics or Uncanny X-Men, which each have any number of smallish, independent groupings. Which, in turn, each have some overlap with other groups. The number and variety of overlapping fan groups would be so complex as to be virtually impossible portray in a Venn diagram, especially when you start including fans of particular artists and writers, companies like Active Synapse and G.T. Labs, and visual styles like ligne claire and sprite comics. It is then the culmination of all of these groups that would be the body of comic fandom, each one acting independently from the others but all sharing similar values and characteristics based on a common medium.

As noted at the end of the last chapter, however, it still seems almost self-evident that there ought to be a fair amount of difference between fans of Batman and fans of Asterix. Indeed, not all of these circles of fans necessarily overlap directly. Those with the fewest commonalities, not surprisingly, bear the least relation to one another, creating a distinct ingroup/outgroup scenario even within the overall ingroup of comic fans. One group of people might be fans of the medium of sequential art, while another might be fans of superheroes who happen to be frequently sold to them in comic form, as I suggested earlier.

This is where the conflicts stem from. While different tribes of comic fans are using the same terminology—scripting, line weights, page layouts, etc.—they’re speaking different languages. One group is applying those terms to and discussing them in relation to a medium, while another is applying the terms and discussing them in relation to a genre. So when one side claims Maus as a great example of comics, the other is left confused because they’re applying genre criteria to a work outside that genre. Conversely, a group lauding the workmanship in Green Lantern confuses the other side because they’re applying the full range of considerations for the medium against a specific genre piece. They are using the same words but speaking different languages, leading to an ingroup/outgroup dynamic.

Johanna Draper Carlson relayed to me an example of this type of ingroup/outgroup conflict within a small segment of comic fans. When she worked for DC Comics, part of her job was to moderate the company’s online message boards. At the time, the character Hal Jordan (Green Lantern) had gone insane, became a villain and was replaced by Kyle Rayner. Although Draper Carlson enjoyed this new character, she was in a distinct minority on that message board community and was on the receiving end of some particularly insulting remarks. Against claims that she was simply unfamiliar with Hal Jordan, she read through his appearances from previous decades. When she responded that her opinion was unmoved, she received even more insulting comments, even going so far as to claim that she must be sleeping with the book’s editor.

Draper Carlson suspected (probably rightly so) that jealousy had some influence here. After all, she had free access to a great deal of material the others did not. But part of the conflict came from the parties essentially discussing two different things: Draper Carlson was looking at the character from the standpoint of a new character with interesting story possibilities, whereas those insulting her were focused on how this new character would, to them, never be as good as the previous one. When those message board posters could not understand what Draper Carlson was saying (as they were trying to run her comments through a mental “But he’s not Hal Jordan” filter) she became an outgroup member in their eyes, and they began attacking her on anything else that was fundamentally different, including her gender.

That disconnect is especially note-worthy here because it highlights how diverse fans can be, even within a relatively small segement of the overall body of comic fandom. Even though everyone was discussing Green Lantern, the modes of discussion were radically different in their approach.

One of the keys, then, to avoiding such conflicts is to understand the approach others with whom you are speaking are taking. It is indeed possible to discuss the very same comic using any number of methods and to be able to float bewteen different camps, one needs to adopt slightly different perspectives on the same topic.

When I began to associate with a number of different comic related groups, there were five or six guys I chatted with every week at my local comic shop. There were a group of ten or twelve of us who hung out on one Fantastic Four centered message board. There was a group of 15 or 20 who hung out at another board that was also FF-specific, but part of a larger set of boards that included sections for about 30 of the most popular characters. Some of my comics research led me to the Marvel Chronology Project, where fans used storytelling elements from within the comics to try to establish a timeline for the entire fictional history of the Marvel universe. Plus, running my own website put me in contact with a host of other fans, several of which became contributors to the site itself. There was certainly some crossover among those groups—Carolyn was a regular contributor to both of the message boards, Jeph came from the board I moderated and provided contributions to the Chronology Project, Gregg contributed heavily to my site and popped over to the message boards, I was obviously a regular of all of them—but each group was a small community that had its own tenor. The group of message board moderators was decidedly more formalized and structured than the people I would run into in the comic shop. The Chronology Project discussions tended to run on longer and into much more detail than what I’d find on message boards.

All of these groups were discussing comics—frequently, the exact same ones—but the specifics of the dialogue were noticeably different. The message boards tended to look at issues more emotionally (“I really liked where...”), my site tried to stay more factual and apply objective standards to stories (“The framing structure glossed over key story beats...”), the Marvel Chronology Project focused almost exclusively on temporal placements (“The flashback scene must have happened after the previous issue because...”), and local shop discussions had a business-centric flavor (“Marvel is going to increase sales dramatically by...”). All of these disparate tribes contributed to the larger group of Fantastic Four fans, which also helped contribute to the larger group of Marvel fans, but that’s still only a small sampling of all comic book fans. You can begin to see the interlocking circles as you look at each of the properties that each publisher works with.

Also during this period, I began reading other types of comics with interest. Some were merely based on larger genre considerations, while others were to see variations and/or innovations in the actual storytelling form of comics. Regardless of the reasons, though, I was reading and enjoying books that were generally not being even noticed, much less read, by most of the people I was interacting with. If I wanted to have any sort of interactions connected to these other books, I needed to join other circles of comic book fans. I initiated a column for a magazine focused on a single creator, Jack Kirby; I signed up for an academic comic listserv (a discussion group using an automated email system); I began talking with comic creators at conventions who expressly did not work in the superhero genre; I started blogging and interacting with other comic bloggers whose interests were also not exclusive to superheroes.

I, and people like myself, provided something of a bridge between fans of superhero comics and fans of other types of comics. While there often is a marked difference between a typical Batman fan and a typical Naruto fan, they are not necessarily mutually exclusive and both contribute to the overall body of comic fandom. Each defines him- or herself as a comic book fan and are both correct in doing so. They have characteristics that they identify in themselves which match what they believe are prototypical for a comic book fan, and it’s that self-categorization that I’ll address next.