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 9, 2009

Us vs. Them, Part 1

One of the most tumultuous times for the comic industry on the whole was the mid-1950s, when comics were under a seemingly constant barrage of attacks from any number of people looking for a juvenile delinquency scapegoat. Similar problems erupted more-or-less simultaneously in several countries, and comic book fans were frequently bewildered by the hatred and venom being shot at their beloved medium. Not only were comics collected and burned, but those who dealt with the medium were, at best, looked down upon. Retailers selling comics were boycotted. Creators whose livelihood came from creating comic books had to start making up other occupations when asked what they did for a living if they didn’t want to be shunned out of town. Children began hiding their comics under their mattresses, lest their parents confiscate and destroy them. The industry, collectively, had to ban together to deflect attacks from people no less powerful than the U.S. Senate. Although a few (notably EC publisher Bill Gaines) tried continuing their fights solo, it was ultimately those who joined together who were able to survive in the comic book industry. They saw the conflict very much in an “Us versus Them” mentality, and came to the conclusion that their only hope was to ally themselves under a united banner.

The basic story is indeed quite old. Two different groups meet and, out of ignorance, don’t understand one another. This lack of understanding leads to conflict, and individuals near the conflict are frequently demanded to choose a side. “Are you with us or against us? Are you one of us or one of them?”

Although this is often seen in terms of larger conflicts (i.e. war) it applies to almost all sizes and sorts of group dynamics. Think of the traditional cliques that spring up in school: jocks, nerds, slackers, etc. Regardless of what the groups are actually called and the precise roles they play within the school, they’re continually generated year after year, decade after decade. My high school had fairly small graduating classes of around 100 students each year, and yet nearly everyone still had a group they fit in with, almost to the mutual exclusivity of others. Acceptance into one group almost inherently prevented acceptance into another. The clique you associated with became your “us” and everyone else became “them.”

This type of intergroup discrimination, exhibited in some manner in different cultures throughout the world, was studied at length by Henri Tajfel and John Turner, who developed it into their theory of social identity.

The basic theory suggests a fairly simple model of human organization. In fact, it’s not that far removed from the classic “us versus them” discussion: a person views others as part of their ingroup or an outgroup. An ingroup can be described as just the collection of people who belong to the same group as the individual in question; for the purposes of this book, that will generally be “comic book fans.” Everyone not a member of the ingroup is, therefore, part of an outgroup.

The distinction is not actually as binary as it might appear at first. If we assume our ingroup is that of comic book fans, an obvious outgroup would be “people who hate comic books.” But another outgroup might be “people who are indifferent to comic books.” Another might be “fans of Joss Whedon who read/watch everything he writes, regardless of the medium.” People in this last group will have read some Astonishing X-Men comics, but might not care about Colossus and Kitty Pryde’s relationship beyond what Whedon himself wrote. Nor about John Cassaday’s art. Or the collectibility of multiple cover versions of the comics themselves. Their sole interest might be Whedon’s writing and they would never consider themselves comic book fans, despite making any number of trips to their local comic book shop while tracking down his work.

As transmedia becomes more commonplace, we are likely to see more and more people who would not be considered comic book fans buying comics. In 2006, Frank Beddor began releasing his “Looking Glass Wars” story to the world. It was initially touted as a trilogy of prose novels, based loosely around Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland books. Beddor, however, was an early adopter of transmedia storytelling and didn’t limit himself to prose. There was also a massively multiplayer online (MMO) game, a soundtrack, a webcomic and multiple printed comic book series; all of which advance and elaborate on the overall story in their own fashion without retreading on other material. People who read the first novel came to his website, looking for more information, and were shocked to find there was a comic book series out as well. Some comments from the official message board include:

I apologise if this is said in another thread. But how long have to comics been out? And how many are there? Until i found this site, i didn’t know that any of these things existed!

Anyone know where i could get a copy of the first and or 2nd comic cuz i’ve searched and can’t seem to find them anywhere.
—Sir Pyros

I can’t even find it! I suppose I could special order it through Walden’s, but where did you guys find it?

im not a comic book reader never liked them. Sorry. But i am in love with lgw and is the hatter comics worth my money or time?

It’s mature stuff...definitely not quite the same demographic as the book
—Her Imperial Viciousness

It’s plainly evident in reading through the message forums that good number of people who were actively seeking out more information about “Looking Glass Wars” were, at least in some cases, at a complete loss for where to even look for a comic book. Others were skeptical. Clearly, many of these people who were actively seeking out the comics were not fans of the medium (as they were showcasing ignorance or even hostility towards it) but were nonetheless eager to track down the comics out of their enthusiasm for “Looking Glass Wars” material. Not surprisingly, there were also comic book fans who bought and enjoyed the series, but I use this example to illustrate that while the “Us versus Them” mentality is an example of an ingroup/outgroup dynamic, it is by no means a mutually exclusive one.

Let’s look at the ingroup more closely, as the outgroup is largely defined as “what the ingroup isn’t.”

As I discussed on my chapter about defining fandom, the group that we’re discussing is largely self-identified. Henri Tajfel and John Turner noted in their original writings on the subject that such a group is, “a collection of individuals who perceive themselves to be members of the same social category, share some emotional involvement in this common definition of themselves, and achieve some degree of social consensus about the evaluation of their group and of their membership of it.” Putting that in terms of comic fandom specifically, they’re saying that comic book fans have a pretty good understanding of what it is to be a comic book fan. The fact that they’ve spent as much time and put forth as much energy into comic books as they have means, in part, that they’ve gained some understanding of what the nature of fandom is. That understanding is shared within the body of fandom, generally by way of example. A person stepping into comic book fandom for the first time picks up on the customs and mores of the group and, over time, adopts them in an effort to become more of a member of that group. Those who continually and/or willfully disregard the basic commonalities of fandom are rejected from the group in some manner.

Groups start over a common interest; in this case, enthusiasm for comic books. There is a high degree of likelihood that many fans came to appreciate the medium for the same, or at least similar, reasons. It is, therefore, a reasonable assumption that these fans also share similar traits amongst themselves that allow them to appreciate the same form of entertainment. Those commonalities then form the basis of those customs and mores, which are inherent in a majority of the group members anyway. The prototypical comic book fan begins to emerge.

Although it conventionally refers to the first instance of an object, a prototype here is meant as a perfectly typical example. In literature, the term “archetype” might be more appropriate; however, that particular word was already being used in psychology and “prototype” was used to avoid confusion. Since I’m discussing fans from that perspective, I’ll also use “prototype” here.