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 25, 2009

Promoted from Captain Marvel to Major Victory, Part 2

The end of the previous chapter touched on the different roles fans can play. These roles have some significance in how fans are compared to one another as far as their cultural capital is concerned. A child idly reading a Wonder Woman comic isn’t going to be compared to an editor of DC Comics. Fans who have been reading comics for fifty years are put in a different classification than retailers. Their roles within comicdom are such that put them in contact with widely different sets of data and information which are, by and large, not privy to other roles. An editor, of course, would know about line-wide sales numbers whereas a retailer would have access to local trends. An older fan is expected to know more simply by the longevity they’ve had within fandom and newcomers are understood to be in the process of learning the basics. Each role, however it’s defined by fandom at large, has a different set of expectations that accompany it—a prototype of sorts—that allows individual fans to be assessed within a comparatively homogeneous group. This has the effect of more firmly establishing tiers within fandom, but simultaneously leveling each of those tiers so everyone is gauged against a fair baseline.

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.