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 23, 2009

Promoted from Captain Marvel to Major Victory, Part 1

Typically, when people think of capital, they think of the financial capital involved with business and industry. CrossGen Comics had issues with their financial structure and couldn’t afford to pay their freelancers. Gorilla Comics couldn’t raise enough external money and ran into difficulties as the creators tried to finance their own comics. Charlton Comics ran into troubles when their sales declined enough that they couldn’t pay to keep up repairs on their deteriorating printing presses, much less buy new ones. Starting a new business of any sort, including the likes of comic publishers and retailers, requires a fair amount of initial capital investment to pay for getting things up and running. Most business majors in college will probably tell you that, if you’re opening your own business, you’ll need enough money at the start to essentially operate at a loss for the first two or three years.

But that’s not the type of capital that’s relevant to this discussion about comic book fans. Fandom can indeed be a source for this type of capital and there are conversations to be had along those lines; however, within the context of this book, this chapter will be looking at something called cultural capital.

The basic notion of cultural capital was introduced by Pierre Bourdieu in 1973, and was elaborated on by him over the ensuing decades. His essential premise was that there are, in fact, three types of capital: economic, social and cultural. I touched on economic capital in the opening paragraph above. Social capital is, to use the vernacular, all about who you know. Cultural capital is the knowledge, skills and wisdom someone has and is regarded as having value. Bourdieu originally used these descriptions in relation to French society at large and applied a somewhat limited view of what was culturally valuable. That is, cultural capital was someone’s knowledge and appreciation of “classical” forms of the arts created by the likes of William Shakespeare, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Leonardo da Vinci. It soon became apparent, however, that his application of the phrase he coined was rather limited in scope and highly subjective to his interpretation of value. In the years since then, cultural capital has been applied more broadly to encompass the values of any particular group. You should recognize by now that when I’m discussing a group’s values, I’m talking about the group prototype.

But Bourdieu still had hit on a good point: that money was not the only form of currency people used. People traded favors for political power; they educated themselves at schools to get better jobs; intellectual property was becoming as precious as physical property; grass roots organizations were making an impact on groups which had previously ignored their very existence. Clearly, something besides money was being bandied about as a means of exchange and this is where the ideas of social and cultural capital come into play.

To make sure everyone is perfectly clear on the distinctions between the three types of capital, let’s define them in relation to the comic industry. A comic book shop owner has a fair amount of economic capital; he or she has whatever is in the store’s bank account, of course, but also their inventory of comic book stock and, sometimes, the physical building itself and the property it rests on. An individual comic book fan has much the same type of economic capital, although often at a smaller scale relative to the shop owner. Social capital within the comic industry generally revolves around the names many comic fans are familiar with: the writers and artists of the most popular comics, as well as the editors, publishers, and other professionals in the industry. In short, if you start name-dropping comic professionals, you are using your social capital. Cultural capital in comicdom is how well you know the Nelvana mythos, whether or not you can recite the Green Lantern oath from memory, being able to determine who inked a comic just by looking at the style of brushwork, writing your own fan fiction and all the other traits that are considered valuable and part of the prototype. When a comic book fan utilizes the characteristics that are part of the prototype, they are showing their cultural capital.

The value of this cultural capital is immeasurable. Unlike economic capital, there is no concrete value one can ascribe to knowing a 50-year-old fictional character’s entire backstory. There is no way to score one person’s talent at discerning individual’s lettering styles against another person’s knowing which characters appeared in any given installment of Foxtrot. The traits might be considered valuable, but not in any quantitative sense. That said, an individual can accrue cultural capital just as they can accrue economic capital and use it to improve their status within the comic community.

It is relatively easy to see how someone can accrue economic capital. A person works at their job, earns money, and uses that to purchase comic books. The more comic books she or he buys, the more economic capital she or he has within comicdom. It’s also fairly easy to discern how someone might accrue social capital. First they meet a comic book professional and perhaps ask some questions. A dialogue between the two begins which might develop into a professional friendship. The professional could then introduce the fan to other professionals. The more people of importance the fan knows, and the more important they are, the more social capital they have.

Cultural capital is a bit more ephemeral. As noted earlier, the characteristics ascribed to the prototype are not able to merely be listed or categorized on a spreadsheet, but instead it is more of an accepted gestalt of the best traits seen in others. As cultural capital is just outward expression of these internalized ideas, it is likewise unable to be listed or categorized. The question that immediately and naturally arises, then, is: how can the amount of someone’s cultural capital be gauged? Fortune regularly creates a list of the wealthiest individuals from an economic perspective, and people frequently gauge their social capital by the number of contacts they have on various social networking sites.

There has yet to be a definitive way to assess someone’s cultural capital. It’s not unlike defining fandom in the sense that those within the group have an unwritten and almost inherent understanding of determining it. Fortunately, a single, decisive ranking of the value of fans’ cultural capital is unnecessary, much like economic rankings within one’s own circle of friends and relatives is unnecessary. The reason it’s unnecessary is that cultural capital is only of relative worth.

Whatever cultural capital you might have is only worth something to others who find that capital valuable. A comic fan who has memorized a great deal of information about the stable of Marvel characters might be well known and respected in his or her own circles, but that same information would mean very little to a fan of Matt Feazell’s mini-comics. Likewise, those interested in mini-comics have very little cultural capital as far as a fan of InuYasha might be concerned. Indeed, someone outside of comic fandom would find all of the cultural capital within fandom effectively useless. Recall that the praise-worthy values within fandom were designated by fandom itself, and they may not have any bearing or impact with outgroups.

The observation of someone else’s cultural capital cannot be done on sight. Further, it is inherently not static as the individual will continue to accumulate knowledge and traits considered valuable. (Alternatively, one can forget things as well and lose cultural capital but this is most often associated with decreased interest in fandom, if not a definitive break from it. The individual would likely cease calling him- or herself a fan and would have little or no use for the cultural capital established in that group in any event.) Thus, assessing cultural capital must be done over a period of time and is continually valuated.

When I first learned how to develop web pages, I quickly realized that I could transfer much of the knowledge and information I knew about the Fantastic Four to a website. My original intent was to have a readily accessible and easy-to-update system of keeping track of that information. That it was then shared with the rest of the world was something of an incidental concern for me at first. So I built a Fantastic Four website and began telling my online friends about it to share the information with them. At the time, there were several other Fantastic Four websites available and, not surprisingly, some of the information on our respective sites was similar. Over the ensuing few years, I continued adding new information and features and it wasn’t long before my site dwarfed the others in sheer size. The original articles I wrote, the creator interviews I conducted, the historical information I uncovered all showcased the cultural capital I had built up from reading the comics so closely over the years.

As one of the earlier fan sites that went online, and later one of the most robust, it became apparent to others that any one person who could write so much and at such depth on the Fantastic Four must have a great deal of expertise on the subject. Fantastic Four fans saw me display my cultural capital over the ten or so years that I ran that website in a way that hadn’t been seen previously. My cultural capital was so valuable to Marvel that they were willing to use economic capital to gain access to it; basically, they paid me for what I knew about the Fantastic Four. It was the cultural equivalent of owning a closet full of expensive suits, but never wearing them out of the house; and once I did start wearing them out, others were surprised.

However, despite whatever cultural capital I held with regard to comics at large, I was primarily only recognized within Fantastic Four circles since that was what I tended to put on display. Anything I might say on the subject of webcomics or fandom or other topics was largely irrelevant to the group I was often with, and not seen at all by those who might have had some interest in it. Thus, when I stopped working on my Fantastic Four site to focus on broader issues relating to comics, I was initially met with indifference since I was essentially coming to a new group as an unknown quantity. Within this different group, I had to be re-analyzed and re-assessed to see what sort of cultural capital, if any, I had. In many respects, I was starting over in comic fandom. Although there’s certainly no way to definitively quantify such analysis, I would have to say that it took at least a year or two to actively and aggressively highlight my cultural capital in this new group before it was even remotely close to where it had been in my previous one.

Cultural capital is also only relative in the sense that however much I have, it’s only really put in comparison with, at most, a handful of individuals at any one time. How much I have is not definitively quantifiable, but it is generally fairly easy to judge whether I have more or less than the next fan. Two fans discussing comic book history could discern who had more cultural capital simply by the examples each sets forth. If one fan only displayed knowledge of comics made within her or his lifetime, and the other was able to reference that material plus comics that had been published decades before that, the latter fan would generally be considered richer with regard to cultural capital. Certainly, not every example would be as cut and dried as that but, in instances where any sort of ambiguity might make a determination difficult, most people seem generally content with stating that the two fans had roughly the same amount of capital. Because of the imprecision in determining the full range of someone’s cultural capital, plus the time it takes to assess, large scale comparisons are impractical. Generally comparisons are limited to small groups and are very informal.