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 11, 2009

Us vs. Them, Part 2

It has been something of a running joke within comic book fandom that Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons is the perfectly prototypical comic fan. He’s single, overweight, condescending, emotionally arrested, obsessive, sarcastic and socially inept. His self-image has little connection with reality, due in large part to spending as much time as he does reading works of fiction, and he has no real influence or authority outside of his comic shop. He is, of course, a pastiche meant to poke fun of the worst aspects comic book fans. Given that people join groups, in part, to help their self-esteem (more on this later) it is absurd to hold up such a collection of negative traits as a prototype.

A comic book fan prototype, by contrast, has all of the characteristics of a comic book fan that are considered valuable or useful within fandom. For example, one characteristic might be the ability to identify an artist by the nuances of his or her linework—a trait that would be useful when looking at older comics that did not carry artistic credits. Another characteristic might be an excellent memory, which one could use to make connections between contemporary stories and older ones. It would virtually impossible to provide a complete list of every trait that could be assigned to a prototypical comic book fan, if for no other reason than such a list is mutable. These valued characteristics can change over time as they adapt to their surroundings and changes in the comic landscape. The specifics of what a prototypical comic fan looks like in the 21st century is different than what he or she might have looked like in 1970 in part because there were no such things as webcomics in 1970. Comic book fandom is organic and will continue to change as its membership changes.

Likewise, the traits and characteristics of outgroups change with time as well, and new outgroups are constantly being formed. There was no such thing as a “Star Wars fan” prior to 1977 and no such thing as a “Twilight fan” prior to 2005; those stories had yet to be produced. Since both comic fandom and all of its outgroups are constantly changing, therefore, the interactions between and among such groups is dynamic as well. What it means to be a comic fan now is different from what it meant to be a comic fan ten years ago. The landscape has changed, both within comic fandom itself, as well as among all the outgroups.

As new members are indoctrinated into fandom, they observe the actions and behaviors of existing fans. While each fan is an individual and has their own attitudes and mannerisms, commonalities can be seen by the new member across many of the existing fans. If a significant proportion of fans, for example, repeatedly cite a particular creator as talented, either directly by name or indirectly by his or her works, the new member is likely to adopt a similar stance. At least until they have a chance to analyze that creator’s work more critically themselves. Everything could be under consideration: from “is it acceptable to consider a creator’s political views when reviewing her or his work” to “is it okay to call a creator by his or her first name?”

During this learning process, the new fan will also observe how fans act and react to other fans. They will learn who others consider the Big Name Fans (BNFs): that is, who is most respected and who has the most authority within the group. Interestingly, these BNFs are often those individuals who are themselves most closely aligned with the group’s prototype. Because these individuals have a larger than average number of those most highly valued traits among the group, they are generally afforded the most respect within it. It should be noted that the BNFs demonstrate those traits through active participation (a topic to which I devote a later chapter) and accruing cultural capital (another chapter-worthy topic) accordingly.

Online user studies suggest the extent to which people watch and learn the norms of a group. Jakob Nielsen noted that, “In most online communities, 90% of users are lurkers who never contribute, 9% of users contribute a little, and 1% of users account for almost all the action.” This points to the notion that a vast majority of people (99%) are spending most of their time with the group simply observing how the most active 1% behaves. Some of those lurking users are almost certainly either looking for a specific piece of information, or seeing if the group is one worth joining—neither are likely to consider themselves members of the group and, in that respect, don’t really factor into our notion of comic fandom. But the overwhelmingly lopsidedness of the equation, even accounting for those non-members, shows just how significant the impact of those prototypical members can be, and how much they can contribute to the overall group dynamic.

In many ways, I consider my induction into comic fandom proper well-timed because it didn’t occur until I was well into my twenties, allowing me to more consciously observe the process at work. I’ll share my own experiences here to highlight what I’ve been discussing.

Although I’ve been reading comics as long as I can remember, it wasn’t until my eleventh birthday that I became really enthusiastic about them. Among other things, I received a copy Fantastic Four #254 and it was so mind-boggling powerful to my pre-pubescent brain that I was hooked almost instantly. I started actively scouting down back issues; I got a subscription through the publisher, Marvel, to make sure I didn’t miss new issues; the very first check I wrote soon afterwards was to Mile High Comics for $15.00 worth of back issues. In my own mind, I was most definitely a fan.

Except no one knew it. I couldn’t drive myself, so my trips to comic shops were sporadic at best. I knew only a couple people who read comics at all in school, and they weren’t really fans so much as casual readers. My questions sent in to other fans (whose addresses were printed in comics’ letters pages) went unanswered. I couldn’t afford to keep up with fanzines as well as the comics themselves, closing that avenue of discussion for me. So even though I considered myself a fan, I was not a part of the larger body of comic book fandom.

Once I began really interacting with other comics folks through some of the early Internet chat rooms and message boards on America Online, I learned, by trial and error, how not to jump into a chat room with a comic creator and start blasting them with questions. I learned how and when a back-and-forth message board discussion that’s veered wildly off the original topic needs to be taken to another forum. I learned how fans shared knowledge and trivia about the stories they’d read. Sometimes I’d jump in with my own thoughts and comments, but only after I had spent some time watching and reading others’ messages. I didn’t make an attempt to play the game until I had learned the rules. It was by holding back and paying attention to what was going on that I learned how best to interact with this community. And, while I moved from AOL to Internet message boards, most of the same characteristics remained in place, regardless of who was running that particular board. Furthermore, those characteristics remained in place as I began frequenting comic book shops regularly enough to be recognized on sight. I had internalized the notion of what it meant to be a comic book fan and found that it carried me in good stead if I were online or in person, talking with old friends or complete strangers. As long as we were all comic book fans, we could all rely on fandom’s unspoken rules of engagement and get along just fine.

There’s a curious contemporary anecdote to highlight how the salience of an outgroup’s characteristics can change what some of those rules of engagement might be. Science fiction fans began holding conventions long in advance of their comic counterparts. Indeed, comic conventions sprang fairly directly out of science fiction ones, a fact which is owed to a fair amount of overlap between the two groups. While not exactly the same, their similarities allow for a bridge from the comic ingroup to the science fiction outgroup. Thus, many conventions over the years have featured both science fiction and comic book components, and there were relatively few complaints from comicdom. But when Comic-Con International began hosting movie-based events, comic fans became upset. And when Twilight fans came to CCI because of events catered almost exclusively for them, comic fans became outraged.

Well, last year Twilight caused an absolute Beatles-mania sh*t show with tween girls and their Twi-hard moms camped outside the convention center’s Hall H for hours upon hours in order to get one of the 6000-or-so seats inside.
—Erik Davis, Cinematical

Anyone who attended last year’s Comic-Con can attest to how much of a cluster-fuck was caused by Twilight’s presentation in Hall H. Hundreds of tweens and Twilight Moms/Dads camped overnight to be the first ones into Hall H. By the time the ‘normal people’ began to line up hours before doors were set to open, thousands of Twilighters were already in line.
—Peter Sciretta, /Film

This type of reaction was fairly common and much more visceral than typical complaints about programming issues at a major convention.

Many attributed the reaction to the predominantly female audience that Twilight brings, compared with the predominantly male audience most American comic books bring. However, that’s only partially accurate. It would be more appropriate to note that the group of fans who appreciate Twilight differ substantially from fans who appreciate the mainstream comic books or science fiction typically found at American comic conventions with regard to what they consider important characteristics of their respective fandoms. One example might be that Twilight fans are more accepting of open displays of emotion, as opposed to comic fandom’s comparatively more reserved nature. The differences between the two fan bases are significant and note-worthy enough for comic fans to consider “Twilghters” a decided outgroup, despite both groups being fairly similar conceptually. Both groups, after all, enjoy commercialized escapist fantasies that explore human dynamics through supernatural beings.

Perhaps more interesting to note, however, is that the Twilight fans, while always an outgroup to comic fandom, were essentially insignificant initially. There was knowledge they existed and, even if comic fans didn’t “get” Twilight, they generally accepted those who did. As far as comic fans were concerned, there was no perceptible overlap in any salient characteristics, so their outgroup status was recognizable, but unimportant. As Twilight fans began “encroaching” on comic fans’ territory—namely Comic-Con International—comicdom’s evaluation of the threat level changed substantially. The Twilight fans were literally entering into territory that was once reserved for comic fandom. What was once an inconsequential characteristic (where a Twilight fan happened to stand) became a decidedly more relevant one in light of a comic fan’s characteristic (where she or he was trying to get to). Although not exactly justifiable, it was only after that single characteristic was directly challenged that other differences in traits became “problems.”

Also of interest is that Twilight fans did not display the same open hostility towards comic fans (except, perhaps, in instances of self-defense). As Twilight fans, relatively new as a collective group, had no prior territory to call their own, they had no qualms sharing space with another fandom. A comic book convention was as suitable a gathering place as horror convention or a science fiction convention, as far as they were concerned; they were largely pleased to simply have a physical location to share their enthusiasm together.

This should have been entirely expected. In fact, there are reports from early science fiction conventions that expressed much the same sentiment about comic book fans that comic fans are currently displaying towards Twilight fans. Communications of the time limited the scale of and reporting on the events, but the general attitude is similar. In Comic Art #1, Dick Lupoff alluded to “some petty ill will” directed towards comic fans at the 1960 Philcon. Other comic book fans would recall the same types of sentiments years later...

Most [science fiction] fans looked down their noses at comics—and with some justification. After all, sf fandom had been given a bad name (as had sf itself) by the public media association of science fiction with ‘Superman’ and ‘Buck Rogers,’ which were very bad sf, irrespective of their merits as comics.
—Ted White, Squa Tront #9

The argument could be made, of course, that Twilight is a single intellectual property, whereas comics and science fiction are much more broad, encompassing any number of properties. Wouldn’t it be more appropriate to compare Twilight fans to, say, Batman fans? And, for that matter, wouldn’t Batman fans noticeably differ from fans of Tintin or Naruto? I’ll cover that in the next chapter.