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 30, 2009

Fans vs. Collectors vs. Nostalgics, Part 2

All of these factors tied together and prompted the idea that publishers could design comics to be collectible, thereby tapping into some of the after-market funds by creating an immediate demand, as opposed to the delayed one that generally drove the collectibles market. Early publisher gimmicks were simple, such as heavily promoting first issues or “significant” events, but there were enough comic fans that tried to cash in on the speculator market that publishers noticed sales spikes on those issues. By the early 1990s, they were promoting variant covers and pre-polybagged issues as well as heavily marketing “event” comics to mainstream media outlets. All of which encouraged a collector mentality among fans as well as non-fans eager to tap into a booming economic market.

In recent years, however, the comic collector looking for economic gains has dwindled. In the first place, the aforementioned speculator market burst in the mid-1990s, forcing many people who had tried collecting allegedly rare and unique comics to sell them for a fraction of what they paid for them. Though some believe the number of those individuals is comparatively small.

They actually thought all the comics they were printing were selling to eager fans, when in fact, I estimate that at least 30% of all the comics being published from 1990-1994 ended up as overstock in comics dealers inventories.
—Chuck Rozanski, Tales from the Database

In the second place, readers don’t need to be collectors the way they used to be. When Byrne was looking for old Fantastic Four stories, he had no alternative but to seek out the original issues in which they were printed. New issues rarely contained reprint material and when they did, often it was haphazard. Readers couldn’t necessarily count on the next reprint issue containing the story that immediately followed the currently reprinted one. Publishers, though, have paid more attention to that reprint market recently, providing a variety of ways someone can engage the same story. That same issue Byrne bought from the barber has been reprinted at least 15 different times, several versions of which have remained in print for years and some are available digitally. The need for a fan to act as a collector is no longer present, by and large, as they can still partake of their favorite stories without involving themselves with the preciousness of rare objects like fifty year old comic books. Which is not to say that there aren’t comic collectors any longer.

When I first started, my goal was to get complete sets of Avengers, Captain America and Thor. I completed my set of Avengers last year, I’m one issue away from a complete set of Thor and three issues away from having the entire run of Captain America. Once I finish completing those, I’m going to try to finish my JLA set.
—Mike Berry, personal communication

Clearly, any number of old comics are sold every day both online and in physical retail locations. A large portion of comic conventions is devoted to retailers selling these paper artifacts. Some of these individuals might be completists, looking to acquire an entire run of a particular title or perhaps every appearance of a certain character. In cases such as these, though, psychologists have yet to define a clear cause for this behavior despite generations of examinations.

Some have likened the process to the hunter-gatherer mentality of pre-historic man, but this does not account for the fact that pre-historic man’s gathering was more immediate and fleeting (i.e. they gathered berries and ate them soon afterwards) nor that not everyone collects. Others have made comparisons to various mental disorders; Maggie Thompson once jokingly suggested to me that everyone at a comic convention had Asperger’s syndrome. But research so far has been far from conclusive, as collectors tend to have few traits in common with patients known to have obsessive-compulsive disorder, which many presume is a higher order of the hoarder mind-set, itself believed to be a higher order of the collecting one. There has been some speculation that collecting is somehow genetic, and researchers have found some casual evidence that a “collecting gene” tends to run in families. But here again, scientists have found little to form any substantive theories yet. We are left with the idea that some people do have a strong desire to collect things, and some of those people collect comics, but little else can be concretely said on the topic.

Nostalgia can, of course, play in to the reasoning behind purchasing comics. It’s not uncommon for adults to long for earlier times that they have mentally given a whitewashing, pushing back any negative memories and emotions to only recall the “good ol’ days.” As I’ll elaborate on in the next chapter, comics are often tied to strong emotions, thus making the recollections of them more desirable. Those memories can be enhanced or recalled more easily with the aid of objects from the period in time the individual yearns for, and comics’ iconic images are ideal triggers. The comics remind them of a time when they were able to enjoy the simple pleasure of reading without the responsibilities that come with adulthood.

Here I was pushing thirty, and thinking to myself, “Why not have the things I enjoyed when I was ten?” So the bug bit me, and I began collecting all over again.
—Bill Thailing, The Golden Age of Comic Fandom

Some fans indeed continue buying new comics in an attempt to recapture that very feeling. “If reading Action Comics made me feel happy twenty years ago, reading Action Comics now should illicit a similar reaction.” It’s not a bad premise on first glance; however, the changes in the creative team of the comic over that time and the experiences a reader has that inevitably impact her or his thinking will almost inevitably result in that same feeling not being recaptured. Those changes, though, often aren’t that perceptible because the comics are often purchased on a month-to-month basis. Creative team changes are generally not done across the board (even if the writer and artist are replaced, the editor is not) and few people have significant life events each and every month. So the premise is actually more akin to “If reading Action Comics made me feel happy last month, reading Action Comics this month should illicit a similar reaction.” It is only when this process is carried out over years or even decades that it becomes less and less feasible. But the emotional connection with the characters remains important, and I’ll discuss how that plays out in the next chapter.