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.

Friday, December 18, 2009

I Yam What I Yam, Part 1

I defined comic book fandom, in part, by stating that it was a collective decision for someone to become a part of fandom. Simply being a fan wasn’t enough to join the ranks of fandom; you had to be accepted by fandom itself to be considered part of the group. These are all parts of social identity theory, and are a fairly well-accepted means of looking at groups like comic book fans. More recently, something of an extension of social identity theory called self-categorization theory was developed. Interestingly, despite its roots in social identity theory, self-categorization theory heads in an almost entirely opposite direction focusing on, not surprisingly given its name, the way an individual views her- or himself.

Earlier in the book, I discussed briefly how members of a group develop a prototype. Looking at the existing characteristics of individual group members, they subconsciously create a mental ideal of what traits are most acceptable or most valuable within their circle.

Prototypes are ordinarily unlikely to be checklists of attributes... rather, they are fuzzy-sets which capture the context-dependent features of group membership often in the form of exemplary members (actual group members who best embody the group) or ideal types (an abstraction of group features). People are able to assess the prototypicality of real group members, including self—that is, the extent to which a member is perceived to be close or similar to the group prototype.
—Michael Hogg, Social Groups & Identities

What Hogg is saying here, as it relates to comic fans, is that people develop prototypes based on the best examples from fandom and then, with such a prototype defined, individuals can weigh their, or anyone else’s, characteristics against the prototype’s. In effect, they use the prototype as the basis by which to judge how much of a “real” fan someone is; a “real” fan would meet all or most of the criteria embodied by the prototype. As Hogg notes, there isn’t a checklist of attributes one consciously goes through, but fans can generally make an almost subconscious assessment by mentally overlaying an individual with the prototype to see how well the two align. Think of it like comparing signatures by placing the two pieces of paper on top of one another and holding them up to a light. One signature is known as being definitive and reliable (i.e. the prototype) and the other being a signature whose authenticity you’re checking for (i.e. the individual).

Conversely, this is generally not done for outgroups. While a prototype for an outgroup member may exist in the mind of a comic fan, they often simply apply the prototype to an outgroup member instead of making an actual comparison. In effect, this is stereotyping (and a large basis for Tajfel’s research on social identity theory). People default to broad categorizations to more readily identify and deal with outgroup members, rather than spending time to learn the specific idiosyncrasies of an individual. It is believed this is done to help facilitate faster communications by allowing people to rely on prior experiences with or knowledge of other members of similar outgroups.

But for members of the ingroup, this comparison against the prototype provides a form of self-identification with an ongoing stream of feedback. Both social identity theory and self-categorization theory do have a fundamental assumption that says people have a strong desire to establish and maintain a generally positive self-image. It is for that reason that they join groups in the first place and why they enhance their existing characteristics to more closely match a group prototype. Indeed, one’s self-esteem is not infrequently a reason to pick up a comic in the first place.

Mick Martin relayed his experience in buying his first comic book on the “Trouble with Comics” blog in 2009...

I was very conscious of why I bought the comic. The cover made it appear to be a story in which the Hulk faced down the rest of the world’s superheroes... I was a lonely and angry kid. I felt like the other kids at school would like me if they just tried to get to know me, and I dreamed of the day that would happen. In the meantime, every day on the playground felt exactly like the cover of The Incredible Hulk #278. The thing that never occurred to me until I saw the comic was that maybe on that playground I was the hero, and all those bastards who made fun of me, they were the assholes.

An individual within fandom, as discussed earlier, has derived a fan prototype from the most valued traits that are relevant to the group. This prototype, when compared with those held for significant outgroups, is almost invariably positive. The typical comic fan is seen as superior to a stereotypical outgroup member since a member of fandom has more characteristics of value. The valued traits are, by definition, highly valued but still seen as an achievable ideal to aspire to. As the prototype is often built on direct examples of real individuals within the group, the ideal is actually considered attainable and can be established a realistic life goal. If, for example, the comic book fan prototype has at least 10,000 issues in his personal collection, it would not be difficult to find any number of specific fans who have achieved exactly that. Using another example, if the comic fan prototype is in some form of regular communication with a professional comic artist, it is likewise not difficult to find any number of specific fans who are engaged in daily conversations with their favorite creators. This very real possibility of becoming more like the fan prototype is able to provide a continual stream of small ego-boosts for an individual as they achieve a series of goals in making themselves more like the prototype.

Soon after I began reading The Fantastic Four regularly, I realized that a “real” fan of Marvel Comics knew a great deal about their entire cache of characters, not just the four showcased in my favorite title. My budget, not surprisingly, was limited and I could only afford four comics per month, so I made a very deliberate decision to follow The Fantastic Four, The West Coast Avengers, Silver Surfer and The Punisher. My reasoning was that The Fantastic Four and West Coast Avengers both covered decent-sized groups of characters on opposite coasts of the United States, thus keeping me abreast of the biggest events with the most characters, while Silver Surfer and The Punisher provided opportunities to stay current with cosmic- and street-level stories respectively. I felt safe in the assumption that repeated guest appearances of Spider-Man and the X-Men would keep me up to speed on those decidedly more popular characters. Additionally, getting copies of The Official Handbook to the Marvel Universe from a friend gave me essentially a character encyclopedia for everyone else. I was able to establish myself as a “real” Marvel fan because I knew what was going on across the company’s entire line of superhero comics. I might not have been able to buy as many comics as some people, but because I specifically tailored my reading habits, I had a better understanding of the overall tapestry than most and was, in my mind at least, more of a Marvel fan than most.

As I began becoming more interested in comics as a medium, I began hearing references to comics and graphic novels beyond the Marvel Comics I had spent years reading. While the disparate publishers prevented me from taking the exact same tactics I had used earlier, I was able to proceed with a similar strategy. I began picking up comics that would provide the most relevant and wide-ranging look at the medium as a whole. I couldn’t buy the entire output of Will Eisner, but A Contract With God did a pretty good job of showcasing his abilities; I couldn’t track down the complete collected works of Walt Kelly or George Herriman, but I could borrow my father’s slightly dog-eared collections of Pogo and Krazy Kat that he bought in college. I became familiar enough with a broad enough swath of creators that I felt comfortable talking about more than just Marvel heroes. I made (and still make) a series of decidedly targeted readings to better familiarize myself with the entire medium of comics. I was taking steps towards the mental prototype of a comic book fan that was in my head, and each accomplishment—finding and understanding how various creators approach their work, not necessarily acquiring the work itself—moved me one step nearer becoming a “real” comic book fan.

Over the years, I have become, as far as my self-identity is concerned, more and more of a comics fan. My ongoing reading and research gives me a deeper appreciation for the medium and its creators, and a better understanding of the medium on the whole. I am closer to the prototypical fan than I was a decade ago, with a resulting increase in my self-esteem. Those traits that I value in the comic fan prototype, the ones that I feel make someone a “real” comic fan, are ones that I admire as an ideal; and because I am closer now to that ideal than I used to be makes me proud. I am acquiring more traits of value, giving me a greater sense of self-worth and making me happier and more content.

This is further reinforced by the rest of comic fandom. If comic book fans, on the whole, all place high value on a certain characteristic of the prototype, and you display that characteristic yourself, other fans will respond positively. This can be seen on display in any number of fashions. A clear example of direct reinforcement can be seen during trivia challenges at comic book conventions which reward those contestants with the most knowledge about comic books with prizes. Less direct, but certainly more common, examples occur in casual discussions about comics. One fan might cite the number of comics in their possession while others nod approvingly or otherwise appear visibly impressed. Though less impactful, even a simple “Right on!” or “Woot!” response on a message board encourages and validates the individual’s self-image. Others are openly acknowledging of the valuable assets a single fan has, reiterating the message that the fan her- or himself is valuable.

All of these serve to bolster one’s self-esteem, but they also serve to reinforce the validation of the group itself. The encouragement and support shown through group intra-action shows the individual that, not only are they worthy of love and respect but also, that such love and respect is administered by members of the group. A comic fan whose thoughts and ideas are valued is encouraged to share more by other fans. While those thoughts and ideas could certainly by shared with anyone, they are likely to be most appreciated by others who have similar tastes and aesthetic sensibilities; namely, members of that very same group of comic fans. Consequently, the fan’s thoughts and ideas are shared back with the group, who receive them eagerly. The fan’s self-esteem is raised, as is the perceived benefit of the group of fans who helped raise it.

This cyclical process is not necessarily perpetual. Both the individual fan’s and the overall fandom’s values can change. A single person, of course, can at any time re-evaluate their priorities. Perhaps the birth of a child, a change in vocation or a debilitating illness might bring about such a re-evaluation. At the fandom level, a change in the economy, shifts in publication policies and technological improvements can impact how the prototype is collectively altered. Self-publishing is a prime example of how technology can change the values of fandom. The fanzines of the 1950s and 1960s were not infrequently drawn with relative crudeness, in large part because the production technology was limited to a handful of individuals who did not necessarily have much artistic ability, and there was a clear demarcation between professional comics and amateur ones. As technology improved and became more readily available, more artists were able to produce their own works that were comparable in quality to that of the largest publishers. Technology continued to improve and by the 21st century, virtually any creator who had the desire could develop an online comic for a website that might be indistinguishable from those of the major players. Accordingly, fandom’s attitude towards comics from “non-professionals” has changed. As has the very definition of comic professional, as I’ll elaborate on later.