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 2, 2009

Defining Fandom, Part 2

I was an early fan of Batman, and there are a number of photos of me sporting Batman t-shirts and playing with Batman toys before my fourth birthday, which I insisted had a Super Friends theme. I began to lose interest in comics as I approached puberty, but a chance reading of Fantastic Four renewed my interest with a ferocity that I hadn’t had before. I convinced my parents to drive me to comic shops and flea markets; I began writing letters in the hopes of seeing them printed; I put posters up on my bedroom wall. I drooled over the copy of Fantastic Four #23 a local shop had on display under glass, as it had a whopping three-figure price tag that my allowance simply could not even think of affording.

These practices continued on through college. My part-time job at McDonald’s did give me more money to spend, so I was able to buy more new issues and older back issues. The graphic design program I was in gave me a deeper appreciation of the work that went into making comics on a monthly basis, as I began to understand how the production processes I learned in class might apply to publishing comics. I graduated and continued buying more new comics and older back issues. I tracked down copies of the unreleased Fantastic Four film produced by Roger Corman, and even started a FF website.

But it wasn’t until I was well into my twenties when I read Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics and realized that, for as many comics as I had read and as much comic book trivia I had stored in my head, I hadn’t actually been a fan of comic books all those years. I had been a fan of superheroes who happened to be most frequently portrayed in comic books.

Despite the fact that I had read comics in my father’s collection ranging from Asterix to Lone Wolf & Cub to Heavy Metal, I had never been especially enthused about any of them. They were merely ways to pass the time once I had read my meager collection a few dozen times. Compare that against my eagerness on Saturday mornings when I could watch The Batman/Tarzan Hour or Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends. Compare that against my joy of stumbling across an airing of the Kirk Alyn Superman serials on a local UHF station. I realized that, despite my contention of being a comic book fan, I was actually a fan of superheroes. That superheroes happened to be found frequently in comic books meant that I read a lot of comics, but I wasn’t particularly enthusiastic about the medium itself. It was only after that realization, and a concerted attempt at exploring the medium I had claimed to enjoy for so long, that I actually became a fan of comics themselves.

The confusion, it seems to me, is understandable given the peculiarities of the American comic book industry. Without getting into a full-fledged history, the superhero genre came into popularity within American comic books in the 1960s and has dominated the industry ever since. For the past several decades, the options available for U.S. comic readers were largely limited to Marvel and DC. There’s certainly nothing wrong with the genre in and of itself, but with the predominance of it within comics and the dearth of it in other media (due primarily to the fiscal restraints of depicting super powers prior to the 21st century) it’s hardly surprising that the superhero genre is so closely associated with the comic medium. Certainly as of this writing, the phrase “comic book movie” is tossed around with films featuring superheroes like Sky High and My Super Ex-Girlfriend despite neither of them having any relation to comic books. Many people simply equate “superhero” with “comic book” and vice versa.

Comic writer Peter A. David relayed the following story on his website in 2005:

I was at a playground yesterday with Caroline. There was a little boy there, seven years old, named Steven. He was talking to other kids about Spider-Man, and what a big Spider-Man fan he was. He was showing off his Spidey sneakers very proudly.

And I said to him, “Do you read Spider-Man comics?”

He looked at me oddly and said, “No.”

“Why not?”

“I watch the movies,” he said. “And I play the video game. I beat Doc Ock,” he added proudly.

“Okay, but... Spider-Man’s a comic book character. Aren’t you at all interested in reading the comic?”

He shook his head. His ten year old brother said, “Why should he?”

I said, “Well, because you keep watching the movies, it’s the same story. What about new adventures, new stories about Spider-Man?”

The big brother shrugged and said, “He watches the cartoon.”

“I watch the cartoon,” Steve echoed. “And the movies. And play the game. I’m a Spider-Man fan!”

Spidey’s biggest fan... except for, y’know, the whole comic book thing. That he really doesn’t care about.

As I experienced myself, I think any number of other “comic fans” have made a decidedly unintentional error, mistaking their appreciation of the superhero genre for the comic medium. While a fan of Spider-Man might have a better chance of making that distinction—having several movies, TV shows and video games available as a conduit for their appreciation—that might not be quite as obvious for characters who appear primarily, or exclusively, within comics. That is, of course, not to say that superhero fans are largely unable to make the distinction for themselves; I only point out the difference to highlight the possibility that simply saying, “I am a comic book fan,” may not be wholly accurate despite the speaker’s intentions. The person may themselves confuse the genre for the medium, making the claim of fandom at least potentially fallible.

That being said, it remains as the closest thing we have to a reliable indicator of an individual’s appreciation of the medium. We have to assume that people claiming to be a fan of comic books are cognizant of the difference between comics and superheroes who frequently appear in comics, and any genre preferences they might possess are not overshadowing whatever their appreciation of the medium might be. So our working definition is a comic book fan is anyone who claims to be one.

Social psychologists Henri Tajfel and John Turner, whose pioneering work on social identity theory I’ll discuss in a subsequent chapter, provided a slightly more elaborate definition of the criteria for inclusion in a large social group: “the individuals concerned define themselves and are defined by others as members of a group.” In essence, they claim that to be a part of comic book fandom, you have to claim to be a comic book fan and to also have others recognize you as a comic book fan. Think of it in terms of employment: a person can want to work for Dark Horse Comics all they want, but if Dark Horse never offers that individual a job, they’ll never become a part of the group of Dark Horse employees. Comic fandom works much the same way, albeit on a decidedly less formal basis. Without ever interacting with other fans who are within fandom, you can never become a part of that fandom. Membership, in an informal manner, has to be offered by someone within the group. This additional clause of external recognition helps to clarify against not only those who might try to superficially pander to a crowd (as might be the case in some actors and celebrities who travel in fairly exclusive social circles) but also those whose own enthusiasm is mistakenly attributed (as noted previously).

The nature of being a fan, and thus a part of fandom, revolves around an individual’s sense of self. A fan is anyone who claims to be one; however, being a part of fandom means that you’re able to share your common interest with others and become part of a larger group. Comic book fandom will “provide their members with an identification of themselves in social terms,” to quote Tajfel again. With the exception of the chapter on comic fan history, the remainder of the book will essentially speak to anyone and everyone who claims to be a comic book fan.