Not surprisingly, this doesn’t work quite so idyllically in practice.
Part of the reason for being in fandom, indeed any group, is to enhance one’s self-esteem. While this can be, and is often, accomplished through the external positive reinforcement of valued characteristics, it can also be internally supported by demeaning others’. That is, while other fans can provide encouragement or advice, some choose to belittle others in order to make themselves appear better than they are. It’s a relatively well-worn mechanism for coping with low self-esteem to bring down those around you in order to feel superior to them, and it would be foolish to think that comicdom is immune from such tactics.
The Simpsons’ own Comic Book Guy is an easy, albeit exaggerated, example. He regularly and casually dismisses all opinions that aren’t in line with his own; he always talks down to his customers, especially those who don’t immediately appear to have a purchase in mind; he continually makes comic book references regardless of their appropriateness for his audience in an effort to showcase his knowledge of the medium; a large proportion of his dialogue, certainly most of what is said to other characters, is sarcastic. Nearly all of his conversations with other characters involve his attempting to demean them in some fashion, and he’s shown very few positive character traits over the years.
I can’t tell you how many times people have come up to me and said, ‘I know who you based that comic book guy on. It’s that comic-book guy right down the block.’ And I have to tell them, ‘No, it’s every comic-bookstore guy in America.
—Matt Groening, TV Guide
The extreme exaggeration, both in the Comic Book Guy character and Groening’s comment, is where the humor stems from, of course. But the idea of a comic book fan trying to lord his or her cultural capital to both those in decidedly different roles and altogether unrelated outgroups is not unheard of. This type of behavior suggests that the individual is either unwilling or unable to distinguish the differences in value systems between her or his own tribe and role, and those of others. The stereotype that’s arisen from this bears some superficial similarities to the stereotype for someone with Asperger’s syndrome, notably with regards to social interactions. While it’s almost certain that some comic book fans do indeed suffer from Asperger’s, that particular stereotype of comic book fans is one that has largely fallen by the wayside, not coincidentally alongside a broader acceptance of the medium as a whole.
While all of this discussion of having and assessing cultural capital is necessary, it doesn’t speak to the more practical side of the equation. Namely, how is a fan able to increase their cultural capital and, more to the point, why would a fan want to increase their cultural capital in the first place? Since I touched on the answer to the latter question earlier in this chapter and it is the less complex of the two, I’ll address that first. How fans might go about increasing their capital is the subject of a later chapter: “A Culture of Participation.”
The reason why someone might want to increase their cultural capital is actually a subject I’ve already discussed: self-esteem. People uses comic book fandom as a means of connecting with one another and validating their sense of self. The other members of fandom share many of the same values as the individual, thus providing justification that the individual’s values are valid. Such a consensus approach provides ready and constant reassurance to the individual that the traits she or he uses to help provide a self-identity are considered valuable, thus promoting the internalized notion that the individual holding those characteristics is valuable as well.
Comics in this country have become very much a way to define oneself, either as a fan or as a creator. “This is my identity; I do this.”
—Landry Walker, Independents
One could argue that there are other reasons you might want to raise your cultural capital. Jerry Bails famously worked hard early in his fandom career to convince DC Comics to revive the Justice Society of America. There’s the possibility that comic fans with high cultural capital could be hired to work in the industry. There have been fans who tried to improve their standing within fandom in order to get emotionally closer to another individual, perhaps a potential love interest or a celebrity.
But beneath those rationales, and any other you might think of, is self-esteem. If you are trying to become a professional comic book artist because you think that will make you happy, that’s an attempt at improving your self-esteem. If you are trying to get a date with the cute cashier at the local comic shop because you think he or she will make you happy, that’s an attempt at improving your self-esteem. If you’re trying to help revive old characters that you really enjoyed as a kid, that’s an attempt at improving your self-esteem. Even the simple notion of swaying someone else’s opinion is, at heart, an issue of self-esteem; “Wow, my thoughts were valuable and/or powerful enough to convince someone else to my line of thinking.” That clearly is a validation of an individual’s thoughts, reinforcing their self-esteem by “proving” that he or she was right.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with any of those rationales, and they’re all quite justifiable. People have an inherent desire to want to feel good about themselves and comic book fandom provides innumerable ways to help in that regard. Connecting with other people who share similar values provides an individual with a sense of belonging as they’re joining a community; it provides an individual with validation for the values they use to identify her- or himself; it provides active reinforcement and encouragement of their positive characteristics, and empathy and sympathy when those are lacking. The act of reading a comic book can provide happiness, but it’s really the connections with others—being able to really become a part of comic fandom—that gives an individual a longer term sense of joy and self-worth.
Your cultural capital asks how much sway you carry outside your immediate circle of friends.
—Juliette Powell, 33 Million People in the Room
Powell summed up the basic notion succinctly. Comic fans do want to persuade others to do things like hire them for jobs and change the editorial direction of a comic and show other people how valuable they are. This very book, in fact, is my trying to show you how I think comic fandom can be viewed.
Every individual is going to have different things that bring them joy and contentment, and it’s a basic human right to pursue that. But before I get to the ways in which fans try to raise their self-esteem through cultural capital, it’s worth noting that people often confuse that basic human right of pursuing happiness with an alleged right to happiness itself.