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 21, 2009

I Yam What I Yam, Part 2

Stability and continuity are important aspects of life in general, and we often use rituals as a stabilizer in our lives. Centuries ago, man simply didn’t understand much of what was going on around him, so he fell back on rituals to provide some continuity in his life. He wasn’t sure if he would be able to even find a mammoth, much less be able to kill and eat it. So he developed a ritual to perform in advance of the hunt because it was a way to give him security and confidence before taking steps outside his cave into the unknown. He knew that, even though he couldn’t count on the outcome of the hunt, he could count on the activities proceeding it.

By the twentieth century, man had figured out a great many things. Everything from fire and the wheel to creating and harnessing electricity to bring a small amount of daylight to the city streets at night. But while man’s knowledge has increased, providing a great many answers to what was previously unknown, we keep raising new questions at an increasingly rapid pace. So while I—a resident of the 21st century—can rest pretty comfortably knowing that I can reliably get something to eat any time I step outside my dwelling, I don’t have any clue what my long-term future looks like. In effect, my future is just as uncertain as that of our Australopithecus afarensis friend, Lucy—the only difference is that my future extends further out than my next meal.

Alvin Toffler, in the early 1970s, noted this and began touting the notion of “future shock.” The idea being that life is indeed moving much faster than at any point in man’s history and we, as human beings, are being forced to constantly adapt ourselves to ever-changing status quo; further, that some people simply cannot mentally keep up and experience a form of culture shock within the very culture they’ve been living in. The worldview they have held suddenly seems wildly out-dated compared to the environment they now realize they’re in. In extreme cases, future shock can resemble post-traumatic stress disorder.

A man living in the 1800s could pretty well assume that his day-to-day activities weren’t likely to change that radically over the course of his lifetime. He still had to question whether or not he could earn enough of a living to buy food and keep his belongings secure, but he knew that if he was a cobbler, his job wasn’t going to appreciably change at all during his lifetime. By contrast, today’s jobs are radically different than they were even ten years ago and we can counteract the emotional impact of that by using rituals to provide an ongoing continuity and sense of self to our own lives. Toffler argued that by ritualizing aspects of our lives, we are able to reduce the psychological impact of rapid environmental changes, the root cause of future shock. We are able to essentially turn ourselves off during a ritual process, giving us time to refresh and recharge ourselves, even in the presence of outside stimuli such as a comic book story.

We frequently do this almost subconsciously. Primarily because the repeated behaviors that eventually become a ritual are enjoyable. In the case of a comic book fan, they might return to their favorite comic book shop every week when new issues arrive. Although at first this is simply in order to purchase the newest comics, it becomes a routine as the weeks roll on, and eventually a ritual. The fan might head for the same store at the same time, or enter the store in the same manner, or exchange the same greeting with the employees. Regardless of the particulars, and almost regardless of what happens in the rest of the world, a comic book fan can walk into their local comic book shop once a week to purchase their latest favorite stories and take some solace in the familiar patterns they’ve developed in buying their favorite comics.

I was in a comic shop a few years ago on “New Comic Day”—the day when that week’s new comics are released. I was browsing the selections, and a gentleman walked in from the drizzling rain. The shop owner, having just sat down for a break from the regular hustle of business, greeted the customer with a sincere, “Mark! How’s it goin’? You’re in early today.” Mark proceeded to relay a story about having been fired not more than a few hours earlier and he’d need to trim down his comic purchases accordingly. On top of that, he then added, he had just found out the day before that he’s diabetic and he had to make some significant lifestyle changes, which would be extremely difficult now without being able to use his former company’s insurance. As he put it, he got a “one-two punch in the span of just over 24 hours.”

Mark’s life had been changed radically in a very short amount of time. One of the ways in which he was dealing with it was by attempting to carry out his habit of buying new comic books on a Wednesday afternoon. The ritual he had established in that particular store was familiar and therefore comforting, even if it was somewhat disturbed by other events in his life. Mark likely went home after purchasing whatever new issues he felt he could then afford, and carried out another set of rituals in reading them. Perhaps in a favorite chair, or with a particular type of music playing in the background. He embraced the familiar as a form of stability during an otherwise very turbulent time.

Fandom itself also provides a sense of stability to the individual. One of the reasons Mark stopped at the store was for sympathy and emotional support. The owner and manager of the store were the part of comic fandom that he specifically knew, and they showed an open and obvious compassion for Mark, as well as an appreciation for what he must have been going through. Indeed, as soon as Mark finished his pronouncement, the manager came up and hugged him with a visibly heart-felt embrace. She then invited him into the back of the store where they could sit and talk more privately. She almost certainly noted his positive attributes, helping to sooth his self-worth while reinforcing the values to which he ascribed as a comic book fan. While he had suffered some devastating setbacks, his characteristics which could help carry him through the adversity were no doubt rooted in his worth as a comic book fan. Not that those were the only characteristics which would help him, of course, but they would be the ones the comic shop manager would have been most familiar with, since her primary dealings with Mark all related back to their shared interest in comics.

The question of fandom’s eventual homogenization seems like one that is bound to come up in this type of discussion. If all comic fans are working towards becoming as much like their prototype as possible, the logical end-point would be when all fans become the same. This, as should be readily observable, does not happen. In the first place, as noted recently, the prototypical comic book fan so many are trying to become is ever-changing. Important values and traits may become less significant in lieu of new values and traits. Each fan works toward minimizing the difference between her- or himself and the prototype at different rates based on their opportunities and/or abilities. Fans rarely reach a uniform level of similarity, and the constantly changing end-point ensures that everyone remains on the path. Using a comic book analogy, one person might be one the opening splash page of a comic while another might be on page 16, while still another might be on a different panel of page 16, and yet another might be in the next issue. It’s part of the same story, but at different stages of it.

Furthermore, different roles within the group place individuals on altogether different tracks. Indeed, many people working in the comic book industry are there because they were a fan of comic books first. So while one person might become a professional comic book artist, another might be a comic retailer. While one might be an area representative for a distributor, another might be an editor. Though their titles make them easy to cite, comic professionals aren’t the only ones following different tracks within fandom. Leadership roles can be assigned by those moderating message boards or chat rooms; the term “letterhack” was created to categorize individuals who wrote in to publishers and had many of their letters published; some people might just assume the function of “the guy who knows a lot about Johan and Peewit.” The roles aren’t ones that necessarily can be easily defined, and any one person can take up multiple roles.

Amusingly, this was played up in Marvel’s first official fan club. In 1967, editor-in-chief Stan Lee reproduced a somewhat tongue-in-cheek letter from a fan that read, in part...

I have watched the MMMS turn into disorganized chaos! (And that’s the worst kind!) As a solution, I suggest we have some officers. By buying his first Marvel mag, a fan is automatically entitled to the rank of RFO (Real Frantic One). His first published letter elevates him to QNS (Quite ‘Nuff Sayer)...
—Mark Evanier, Fantastic Four #64

Other fans wrote in approving of the idea, and Lee soon instituted a formal ranking system for Marvel fans, based on Evanier’s and others’ suggestions. While not taken entirely seriously, it still proved to be a functional shorthand that could be used to help gauge someone’s involvement in Marvel fandom in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The more rankings they earned, the more deeply involved with the entire line they were. Indeed, simply knowing of the system showed more than a passing level of involvement.

As an aside, Evanier would soon afterwards go on to become an assistant to creator Jack Kirby and later a fairly well-known writer in his own right. And, on a personal side note, I was proud to have earned the first three of the six official rankings before graduating high school and got two more in college. I haven’t combed through the letters pages of each and every Marvel comic throughout this period, but I have never run across an instance of anyone earning the final ranking of Fearless Front-Facer. Although I think it’s safe to presume Lee did at least bestow it on himself in his typical self-deprecating manner.

Since we found out earlier that any one group would tend to max itself out around 150 members, that means that there can easily be multiple people in the same stage and/or filling the same role simultaneously within the larger body of comic fandom. Using some of the easy-to-define examples, Chris Claremont and Scott Lobdell were both writing X-Men comics at the same time, thus defining both men as X-Men writers, but they were at different points in their careers then. Brian Clevinger and Scott Wegener both worked on Atomic Robo at roughly the same point in their careers, but in different roles: writer and artist. Steve Lieber and Jeff Parker worked their way into the industry as artists roughly in tandem and shared studio space together; however, the projects they worked on led one to more work for DC Comics and the other to more work for Marvel Comics, putting them in distinctly different groups.

It’s certainly possible, often likely, that an individual can change their role within a group or reach farther along on their path. While success for moving around within fandom generally relies on ability, effort and motivation, the currency that is almost always involved is called “cultural capital.”