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.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Conclusion, Part 2

Everyone who takes pleasure in reading comics can call themselves a fan. And even though you might not agree with their particular tastes in comics, they’re all welcome to the club. There are so many comic fans out in the world that there’s plenty of room for everybody, regardless of whether you’re partial to superheroes or romance or funny animals or yaoi or any other genre. Rest assured that there’s a group of folks out there who enjoy the same type of comics that you do, and would be thrilled to chat with you about it. Of course, that’s where complications begin: finding those others whose tastes and passions compliment your own.

When I first announced on my blog that I was writing this book, in an attempt to ensure that I didn’t miss any significant points, I tried to solicit ideas from other fans on things they would like to see included. One person responded that I should probably decide whether to focus on fandom before or after the Internet really took hold because of the vast difference it had made. But my research had already shown that, while the Internet has indeed made a huge impact on the ability for diverse fans to get together, it hasn’t actually changed the fundamentals of their behavior. Fans were arguing about whether Superman was stronger than Captain Marvel as early as the 1940s; kids would trade comics during the Great Depression so that they could all share the same enjoyment from the same stories and talk about how great they were with one another; George Herriman’s Krazy Kat strips were so popular in the 1910s and ‘20s that a Washington, D.C. speakeasy illegally began appropriating the title character’s name and likeness to attract customers.

The ability for communication throughout the world has improved dramatically over the past century and promises to continue doing so. There are more means than ever to get in touch with other people, and form communities with them so that everyone within can share the same pleasures of the same comics. But, as has always been the case, miscommunications do occur and, with more venues possible for communication, that also means more venues possible for miscommunication. But that shouldn’t take away from the very positive idea of reaching out and sharing your passion for something you enjoy with others. It connects you with others in a positive and self-affirming way. Fans are out there, not so that you have someone to tell what you thought about the latest issue, but so that you have someone to share your life with. Perhaps not as deeply or intimately as a spouse or significant other, but sharing an aspect of your life that makes up part of your very self-identity and reinforces all the best traits within you.

There have been and will always continue to be disagreements within fandom as a whole. With hundreds of thousands of comic fans in the world, it would be impossible to get them to all agree on anything. But precisely because there are hundreds of thousands of fans, it’s easy, even necessary, for them to break into smaller groups that are more closely knit. That’s really the key to fandom: to find those people who enjoy the same types of things in comics you do and enjoy the time you can spend with them. Share your passion, your joy, with others and they’ll share theirs with you.

I’ve presented here a model with which to view comic fandom. It’s certainly not the only model out there, and it’s not necessarily the most “correct” one. But it’s one that seems to work well as I personally look at fans. I see the arguments that erupt and the divisions between groups of fans; I see the unethical and sometimes illegal acts some fans take; I see the tensions between what fans want their favorite characters to do and what the creators themselves want to do. But I also see the friends who rally around another fan who just lost her job; I see the schoolmates whose creative energy feeds off one another as they plot out new story ideas; I see introverts connecting with a larger community in a way that was simply impossible for them without comics to act as a bridge. It’s about people. It’s about feeling empowered to be yourself and having that feeling validated by those who care about you.

I love comics. It’s a wonderful medium and I’ve enjoyed reading comics my whole life. But I love comics fandom more. And I hope to spend the rest of my life a part of it.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Conclusion, Part 1

Although I had an interest in fandom previously, it wasn’t until I had read Bill Schelly’s The Golden Age of Comic Fandom at the very beginning of the century that I started gaining a deep appreciation of it. I made my first attempt at writing about comic book fans in 2002 with an essay that was intended to be part of a university press collection. The piece ended up being about 30 pages and presented a nine-step model for how comic book fans develop from the days when they first discover the medium up through when they might go on to become scholars or professionals in the industry. I made a sophomoric attempt at providing clear labels to each stage and used a Billy Batson/Captain Marvel metaphor throughout to show how quickly someone could jump from one stage to the next. I’m still pretty pleased with the auto-biographical comics I drew to accompany the essay but, in retrospect, I’m glad that particular project was never published.

Since then, I’ve spent a great deal of my time trying to learn more about comic fans and fandom. Much of what has been written about fandoms in general has seemed to focus on either sports teams or science fiction. It wasn’t difficult to start seeing parallels with comicdom. I was astounded, in fact, when I read Harry Warner, Jr.’s history of early science fiction fandom, All Our Yesterdays, with how similar it sounded to what I had learned about comics fandom. If you changed the names and shifted the timeline forward about 30 years, it would’ve provided the same story that Schelly had written about.

It was that realization that made me step back and take a look at comic fandom from a different perspective. Everything that comic fans were doing today—all of the activities I can stand here and observe first-hand—is not new. The specifics might change—websites instead of fanzines, more elaborate costumes, videography that’s comparable to something from Lucasfilm, etc.—but the emotions behind it are identical. Whether you picked up Famous Funnies #1 off the newsstand in 1934 or downloaded the latest installment of 2000 A.D. last night, the enjoyment you get out of that is eternal.

People see things they like in comics. They respond to the characters and situations and even the basic visuals themselves in an emotional way. They invest themselves in the readings of the works and begin to identify with them. “This character is just like me.” “This is the same situation I’m in.” “I would love to meet a soul mate like that.” The comics become not only an attachment of sorts, but as a conduit for themselves and even a very frame of identity. The comics become a physical manifestation and realization of an individual’s thoughts and aspirations, and other fans recognize that.

At Halloween every year, kids dress up as vampires and zombies and robots and pirates. And some kids dress up as their favorite comic-originated characters; Spider-Man and Batman are perennial favorites in my neighborhood. Those kids dress up like wall-crawlers and caped crusaders because they want to embody all the wonderful traits they see in those characters. Perhaps not a conscious level, but they’re responding to the works. They believe that something from those comics is valid and worthy to be incorporated into their own lives.

In some ways, that’s all that adult comic fans do as well. Even if they’re not making elaborate costumes, they’re using their favorite comics as signifiers of what they are trying to get out of life. An outsider can’t necessarily guess exactly what, but they can be pretty confident that the fan finds something powerful there. Maybe they prefer the notions of family and togetherness in The Fantastic Four over the scientific curiosity and exploration angles. Maybe they enjoy René Goscinny’s sense of humor in Asterix more than any ideas about cultural independence. Maybe they really don’t care all that much for Hawkman as a character, but just thought it would be a costume that would really challenge their technical abilities. Regardless of whether or not an outsider can pin down the specifics of why another fan enjoys what they do, they clearly do enjoy it at some level and would love to share that joy with others.

Yet fandom also provides a space within which fans may articulate their specific concerns about sexuality, gender, racism, colonialism, militarism, and forced conformity... Its institutions allow the expression both of what fans are struggling against and what they are struggling for; its cultural products articulate the fans’ frustration with their everyday life as well as their fascination with representations that pose alternatives.
—Henry Jenkins, Textual Poachers

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Blurring the Lines, Part 2

Robert Crumb proves to be another problematic example. He spent a great deal of time in his youth making Treasure Island Days comics with his older brother. The books were mainly for their own amusement and they stopped making them when they were teenagers. In 1958, they began a fanzine called Foo based loosely on the EC horror comics they enjoyed. Crumb eventually left home and began working at American Greetings in Cleveland, doing cartooning in his spare time. He eventually moved out to San Francisco and took freelance illustrating jobs to keep himself fed. He began submitting work to “hippie underground papers” and one publisher liked his work well enough to devote a whole issue to Crumb’s comics. That went over so well that he suggested Crumb do his own books, which soon turned into Zap Comix. Though Crumb initially did a lot of leg work to sell them himself, word of his work spread quickly. But despite gaining a great deal of recognition and attracting some economically impressive offers, Crumb opted against them, instead preferring to remain honest to his vision (to some consternation of his wife). It was only after several more years of work that he was able to financially support himself expressly through his comics. But exactly when that occurred is unclear and, in any event, recognition of Crumb as a professional appears to have taken place some time earlier and was what was the impetus for the generous offers that were extended to him.

Further complicating matters from the other direction are professionals who then pursue fan-like activities. Wally Wood famously started his own ‘zine called witzend which bore many similarities to comic fanzines, but contained the work of professional creators who worked for major comic publishers. Creators were credited but not compensated, instead simply being given the freedom to express themselves. Steve Ditko contributed several original “Mr. A” stories and art to not only witzend but a number of decidedly amateur fanzines as well, again going without compensation. Their work for fanzines was decidedly much more akin to that of other fans with regard to their mind-set rather than professionals earning a living through their craft.

Do I self-identify as an enthusiast? Yeah!
—Jerry Holkins, Participate

Yes, I am still a comic book fan. I am absolutely a comic book fan.
—Jim Lee, Comic Creators on Fantastic Four

Hey, I’m still a fanboy!
—Carlos Pacheco, Comicology #3

What is interesting about these examples and the hundreds, if not thousands, of others like them is that they highlight that comic book professionals are often a subset of comic fandom on the whole. Many who work in the industry began by engaging with their favorite comics beyond the basic reading. Indeed, comics like Penny Arcade, PvP and Least I Could Do became successful, in part, by their respective creators being very open with their interest in the medium. These comics, and many others like them, are not only the results of creating fan works in the creators’ spare time, but frequently also use comics and fandom as subjects and themes. The creators use comics to express their ideas about comics. They engaged (and continue to engage) the medium of comics on the whole and do not limit themselves to a single character or even publisher.

With the improvements in technology, these very fans indeed can become publishers in their own right. The start-up capital required is minimal compared to a generation ago, and many creators today can go out on their own to produce, market and sell their creations. Breeden did precisely that with The Devil’s Panties. Comic fans have the opportunity to effectively step into the comic creation process at any level their skills and desire allow.

What this means is that comic fandom can engage the medium at any level of participation they choose. In 1950, fans were largely limited to letter-writing and producing their own sketches. In the 21st century, fans can certainly still do that, of course, but they also have a greater ability to make costumes and sculptures and magazines and books and movies and almost anything else they can think of. Furthermore, if they’re good at it, they can have other fans pay them to continue doing that and, if they’re really great at it, they can get paid enough to support themselves engaging in something they love.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Blurring the Lines, Part 1

One of the things fans enjoy about comicdom is that comic book professionals feel very much a part of the comic fandom community. Professionals are generally seen as very approachable and can be found in many of the same pursuits as the rest of fandom. They post to many of the same message boards. They hunch over back issue bins looking for old comics. They draw sketches of characters they have no professional connection with. In many respects, it can be extremely difficult to tell professionals from other fans.

In point of fact, many comic professionals were themselves fans before earning a living as comic professionals and they often remain comic fans as they break into the industry. Letter pages and fanzine credits are rife with the names of people who would go on to become well-known comic book professionals. Names like Wendy Pini, Ralph Macchio, Diana Schutz, Cat Yronwoode, Steve Gerber and Mark Gruenwald can easily be found in letter columns from their days before becoming comic professionals. Likewise, comic book fanzine contributors include the likes of Paul Levitz, Gary Groth, Tony Isabella, Mark Evanier, Dave Cockrum and Robert Crumb, all of whom went on to work in the industry.

However, there is no straight path from being just a fan to being a comic professional. Nor are there ample clear markers noting when such a transition might occur. While it would be easy to note when someone might be hired by a comic publisher as a full-time employee, many comic professionals work as freelancers and take other jobs while trying to make a name for themselves in the industry.

Jennie Breeden, creator of The Devil’s Panties, was able to document, to some extent, her progress attempting become a self-sufficient artist. She spent more than a few years trying to squeak out a living from her comic. In 2006, she noted on LiveJournal when she finally felt she’d begun making enough money to live from the earnings she received from her comic...

So I quit my job.
About a month or two ago...
Holycrap holycrap holycrap
I am now, officialy, [sic] an artist.
I’ve been doing a ton of conventions, not going to work... and my bank acount [sic] has been increasing so I guess I’m doing well. Still eating Ramen mind you, but I can pay rent and fill up my tank.

She elaborated on her then-current situation in her Frequently Asked Questions page in response to a query on advice for new comic creators...

My flyers are still printed off the computer on hot pink paper and thrown at people. I pack my lunch at conventions and share a bed in whatever hotel. I’ve slept in a van in the parking lot and carpooled 14 hours with people I never met before. I’m still steeling [sic] muffins from the complementary breakfast. But I’m printing up more books and spending less time pitching my comic and more time selling it to people who have come to hunt me down at the conventions that I do every year.

Although, she clearly wasn’t making a fortune from her comics at that time, she was able to keep up with her expenses. In Breeden’s story, she first identified herself as an artist when she tried making a go at drawing comics for a living. This would reinforce the notion that “earning a living” from working in the industry qualifies one as a professional. Interestingly, though, the job that she noted quitting to become a full-time comic creator was that of a clerk at a nearby comic shop. Technically, she had already been employed in the comic book industry, thus making her a comic professional years before The Devil’s Panties became a financial success.

Friday, January 8, 2010

A Culture of Participation, Part 2

Some ideas work more naturally in some formats over others. An extended explanation for a minor plot hole or continuity error might be best served as a written article. Irritation at a change in the thematic direction of a comic might warrant a letter written to the creators. Trying to figure out how a drawn design might functionally work could lead toward modeling, either virtual or real. Sarcastic humor might work better in a comic strip format. Strong identification with the characters might persuade someone to fashion a costume of their own, based on their favorite. Idolization of the characters might lead creating “shrines” for them in the fan’s home.

Naturally, a fan’s other biases and tastes will play into how they act on continuing their engagement as well. Artistically inclined individuals are more likely to focus on drawings or videos. Those with a penchant for writing are probably more prone to creating fan fiction. More technically minded people might focus on creating websites. This isn’t to say, of course, that a musician will necessarily begin writing music about their favorite comics, just that it might be a more natural expression for them.

Astute readers will have noted that I have so far only noted a few specific forms of expressing the participatory aspects of comic culture. This is not to suggest that any one form of expression is necessarily better or worse than another (the qualitative differences in results would depend on the particulars of execution in any event) nor is it intended to even suggest one is more popular than another (a fact which could easily change after this is published). To be sure, any creative endeavor that uses a comic book or one of its characters as a springboard is a means of engaging with the medium beyond the initial readings, and it would be functionally impossible to list every option available, especially in light of constant technological improvements.

Consider the fanzine. There were science fiction fanzines at least as far back as 1930, but they didn’t really come to prominence in comicdom until the 1960s. This was due, in part, to the availability of cheap printing equipment. As technology improves, the prices on existing technology drops and it wasn’t until the 1960s that access to ditto machines and mimeographs was cheap (and widespread) enough that fans could more readily begin producing their own fanzines.

Similar progress can be charted online. Early access to bulletin board systems was limited to a fairly small number of people throughout the 1980s but, as computers became cheaper and faster, more and more people bought or gained access to them. But even four years after the World Wide Web was introduced to the public in 1991, it was estimated that only .4% of the world’s population was using it. As of this writing, that number has increased to almost 25% and is projected to continue growing in the foreseeable future. More people have access to the tools to create original content online than ever before and, consequently, more people creating than ever before. The 3,000 blogs that were online in September 2000 grew in just a few months to over 20,000 in February 2001.

Clearly, those numbers say nothing with respect to the content at all; it seems certain that the vast majority of those 20,000 blogs had nothing to do with comics whatsoever. However, it points to the increased availability of materials used to create new content, whether that is wholly original or inspired by some comic or comic creator. With greater access to (in this case) publishing materials, a greater number of people took advantage of it. More people are able to interact with their favorite comics in more ways than ever before, and that is projected to increase by nearly all accounts.

So regardless of the method of how someone chooses to express their appreciation for a comic, their options of expression continue to grow and become more readily available. The fanzine publishers of the 1960s and ‘70s turned into the website developers of the late 1990s and 2000s.

Textual poaching, thanks to technology, has become increasingly easier as people can manipulate the data they have more easily. The novelty with which fans looked at Mike Saenz’s Shatter, the first comic book produced entirely on a computer, and Iron Man: Crash, the first graphic novel produced on one, are comparatively passé as computer comics are now considered an entire genre. Having access to digital copies of promotional comic art from creators’ and publishers’ websites, today’s fans can even re-contextualize the material even before it’s been published.

A prime example of this can be seen in manga. Japanese comics are, not surprisingly, generally published in Japan before anywhere else. Often, publishers from other countries make deals to translate the works and publish them in their own respective countries; however, the full extent of published manga outside of Japan is relatively small and many fans clamor for more. This has given rise to a process where the original Japanese books are meticulously scanned page by page and posted online. Other readers fluent in multiple languages are then able to translate the originals and provide full scripts. Still others take the original scans, digitally clean up the artwork and populate the speech balloons with the translated text, thereby effectively creating a version of the comic that can easily be read by those who don’t know Japanese long before a non-Japanese publisher gets around to releasing those volumes.

This work is generally not done for economic gain, but simply as a means to share favorite stories with those who otherwise might never be able to read them. While legal arguments against this practice can of course be made, it remains a very direct form of engagement with the comics beyond the reading. The process of translation alone requires very deliberate and conscious thought about the context and the meaning of each word on the page. Written dialects and slang often do not translate well, and substitutions must be made with other words and phrases that adhere to the original intent, if not the literal meaning. The fans who produce these translations and re-letter the artwork are attempting to share their passion for the stories and characters with literally a world-wide audience and are likely more conscious of their love of the material than any ethical gray area they might be wandering into.

Ultimately, though, that’s what drives fans to produce these works, whether they are translating existing material, dressing up in costumes, writing new stories or playing original songs: they hold a great deal of passion about their favorite comics and characters and want to share that passion with others. They find enjoyment in certain comics and self-identify with them; then, they try to pass along that enjoyment or, barring that, at least create an outward expression of who they are so that others who share the same passions might find them. Finding joy in something is a great feeling, but being able to share that joy with others is wonderful. It really begins to point to the joy of being with others who also enjoy your company: a fan can enjoy their comics, enjoy engaging them after reading, enjoy sharing that with others, and enjoy the others for their own sake.

... accept that value arises here from the process of looking for meaning (and the elaboration of the story by the audience)... [The creators] trigger a search for meaning; they did not determine where the audience would go to find their answers.
—Henry Jenkins, Convergence Culture

The first fan profile in this book, if you haven’t read it, is that of Gregg Allinson. His and my story, I think, begin to speak to that enjoyment. I first “met” Gregg when he responded to a request I made on my Fantastic Four website for issue reviewers. We had both enjoyed The Fantastic Four and also took enjoyment in activities beyond the comics: Gregg with writing and me with web development. He would send me reviews and we would invariably chat about the issue in question. Initially, as we didn’t know each others’ tastes very well, the discussions were short, but as I got to know Gregg, through his reviews and our discussions, our topics broadened. We started talking about issues besides the one he had just reviewed. Then we talked about favorite artists and writers. Then we talked about other work by those artists and writers. Then it was works by artists and writers who had similar sensibilities, and what we were able to take from those works. The topics ranged farther and wider as we got to know each other better and it wasn’t that long before we hardly talked about comics at all. We knew each other well enough that I knew what he would think of an issue before he read it, and he knew what I’d think. Any sort of discussion on comics was effectively moot and we focused instead on each other as individuals. In short, we became friends. Our enjoyment of comics led us to externally engage them, which led us to contacting each other, which led to us becoming friends.

So far, I’ve focused primarily on taking basic concepts, characters and ideas out of existing comics and producing fan works based on them. But it’s entirely possible to take the medium as a whole and use it to express wholly original thoughts and ideas. This is what professional comic creators do, naturally, but there is also a notable contingent of fans who do so as well. The question then becomes where do the fans end and the professionals begin?

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

A Culture of Participation, Part 1

Though Marshall McLuhan defined comics as a highly participatory medium, he was speaking primarily in the sense of a reader’s direct engagement with comics themselves. The very act of reading a comic book is inherently participatory, he argued, because comics are a relatively “low definition” medium that requires readers to fill in a fair amount of the story themselves. What McLuhan did not speak to, however, given his focus on communication through media, was the continued participation that could keep a reader involved with comics after the initial reading process itself was complete. These ongoing efforts that occur outside the medium itself are what constitutes participatory culture as it’s generally regarded today.

Mainstream news outlets are fond of highlighting those in costume at comic book conventions. They cover the events as they’re deemed big enough to be newsworthy, but the focus tends to be people dressing up in something flashy. This is understandable, to a certain degree, as the costumes provide a much more interesting visual than the vast majority of convention-goers. But it does point to a large segment of comic fandom that continues their interaction with their favorite after closing the latest issue of their favorite title. Readers’ extra-media experiences aren’t limited to costuming, of course, and have becoming increasingly more sophisticated as technological improvements open more possibilities for non-professionals. Fans have been known to paint, sculpt, write and record songs, produce videos, develop websites and, of course, write about their favorite comics and comic characters, often for little more than the joy they get out of sharing their enjoyment with others.

This participatory aspect of fandom is frequently focused on in writings about the subject, in large part, I suspect, because it’s the most visible and most tangible. In attending a comic book convention, for example, the only people who you can be fairly certain are not there because they were dragged in by significant other are those who dressed in costume. It’s an obvious, outward sign of an individual’s appreciation of a character. Likewise, an artist whose sketchbook is filled with drawings of comic book characters is more likely to be a fan than an artist with a notebook of still lifes. A simple Internet search that uses a character’s name and the word “fanfic” will undoubtedly lead you to fans of that character. The assumption under all of these cases is that the individual would not spend that much time creating a costume, filling a sketchbook or writing an original story if they didn’t really enjoy that character in the first place. These types of fan activities are easy-to-identify expressions of passion, and often symbolize a fan’s cultural capital in that fandom.

Let me to stop to make a point of emphasizing my phrasing there. The types of fan activities I’m discussing can symbolize a fan’s cultural capital. The artifacts created in such endeavors are not cultural capital in and of themselves. The cultural capital in wearing a really great Flash costume is not that the person has a Flash costume, but the fact that they took the time and energy to make a really great one for themselves. (Of course, this goes back to my much earlier point about not being able to actually measure cultural capital. The time it took to make a costume is estimated by everyone, sometimes including the person who made it; and the person wearing the outfit may not have had a hand in its creation in the first place.) So the end product—the costume, the illustration, the story, whatever—is a result of the individual’s cultural capital and not the capital itself. It’s the mental participation that really counts here.

It’s fairly easy and common now to find evidence of active participation among comic fans. Many appear at conventions in costume, as I’ve noted; several fan musicians have gained some notoriety especially in recent years crafting original songs based on comic book properties; and online artist portfolios are often filled with drawings of popular characters, the illustrators often putting their own deliberate twists on them. But, in point of fact, the very history of comic fandom is an exercise in participatory culture and both have diversified dramatically over the past century.

The earliest fans of comics were taking their love of the medium and playing it out in any way they could. Film-making and similar “hi-tech” outlets, of course, weren’t realistic options back then, but drawing certainly was. Jack Kirby famously drew on every spare scrap of paper he could get his hands on during his school days, copying the works of comic strip artists like Hal Foster and Alex Raymond.

To keep from being bored in grade school, I spent a lot of time at my desk drawing the old Sandman’s gas mask. I was intrigued by such masks. Hawkman got a similar treatment.
—Jerry Bails, Alter Ego #68

Writing, of course, was even more popular as the basics are taught more readily in school. With the insights of Julie Schwartz, taking cues from Hugo Gernsback, the letters pages emerged in comic books as a prime outlet for participating in the fan culture. Readers could, for the price of a stamp, alert the editors, and potentially a much larger reading audience, of what they thought about the comics they read.

Both of these seem rather primitive and almost inconsequential against the possibilities that exist today, but they were and are necessarily an extension of a reader’s interaction with a comic. Once someone has finished reading a comic, to draw the characters or write to the editor requires additional time and attention beyond the initial processing of the story. The artist has to consciously think about what Sandman’s mask looked like and, if she or he can’t remember, they re-open the book to look for reference pictures. The writer has to consciously think about how to express their thoughts and feelings about the comic story in a cohesive, understandable fashion. Indeed, in many ways, this can be a fairly involved process if the reader wishes to really discuss their reasoning. It’s simple enough to say, “I liked the latest issue,” but it’s an altogether more complex process to explain why.

In the 1960s and 1970s, fanzines were what garnered the most attention in terms of fan activity. Bill Schelly has cataloged over two dozen comic fanzine titles that were available in 1962, a number which tripled by 1965. While each comic book letters page might run two or three letters, a fanzine—especially the APAs—could and often did run articles and art from a dozen different people. In Fantastic Fanzine #10, editor Gary Groth thanked all ten members of his “art staff” by name, and there are written pieces by seven other contributors, not counting those whose letters were published in the issue. Readers saw fanzines as an incredible opportunity to continue to involve themselves with the comics they already were enjoying.

There were, of course, several benefits in fanzine activity beyond what was possible in letters pages. Most central is simply the element of control a fanzine editor has over their own material. Any given letter sent into comic publisher was unlikely to be published against the sheer number of other letters that were sent in by others, and the comic editor maintained the right to edit the letter in any way he or she saw fit. There are even accounts of letters having been edited to the point of entirely changing its author’s meaning. A fanzine, though, allowed the authors the ability to publish whatever they wished with no real authority to report to; there were reviews, analysis, interviews, original stories and comics, pin-ups, etc. And the content was often more broadly focused than a single comic book, so fanzine creators could cover the entire industry and not limit themselves to a single title or publisher. While submitting work to a fanzine still allowed the fanzine editor to act as a gatekeeper in much the same way a comic book editor might, a fan always had the option to publish their own fanzine.

This, in turn, gave rise to readers taking greater liberties. People realized that they had outlets for creative expression of their ideas about their favorite characters. Fans could craft their own stories that didn’t appear in the comics, or portray scenes that were unlikely to take place. This notion of fan fiction was not new, certainly, but the popularity of comic-related fanzines helped propagate it to other fans who might not have considered it previously. The wider availability of ditto machines and mimeographs—thanks to improvements in technology and decreasing prices—essentially helped to promote fans' collective ability to textually poach works from their favorite comics.

This notion of textual poaching gained notoriety in large part thanks to Henry Jenkins’ using the phrase in the title of his 1992 book, borrowing the idea from Michael de Certeau and describing it as “an impertinent raid on the literary preserve that takes away only those things that are useful of pleasurable to the reader.” In essence, the analogy is that readers take their favorite bits from existing works and re-purpose them for themselves. Earlier, I described how involved a reader is in the process of decoding the text and images from comics and how no two people are going to read the same story in precisely the same way. Consequently, the ideas and concepts they take away from a comic are going to differ and reflect themselves differently in how they’re expressed or acted upon.

Monday, January 4, 2010

What’s Yours Is Mine, Part 2

Although generally considered overly simplistic for widespread practical use, David Berlo’s model of communication does provide a basic understanding of the processing issue at hand. Berlo’s SMRC model poses that any person sending a message needs to first encode it in some manner and transmit it via some process or channel to a recipient, who then has to decode the message. In other words, a creator might have an idea they want to convey, so they develop a comic to express that idea. That creation process, according to Berlo’s model, is a form of encoding. The act of writing and drawing the comic is a means of translating the ideas in the creator’s head into a form that others can understand and appreciate. But that comic then needs to be passed along or transmitted to someone else; perhaps via the web or a graphic novel or a newspaper. The reader, upon seeing the words and images that make up the comic, needs to take in that information and process it so they can attempt to understand what the creator was trying to say; this is the decoding Berlo noted. The problem here is that the creator’s original idea may have been altered from the time it first formed in his or her brain until when the reader understands it. If the creator’s skills were poor (i.e. he or she could not differentiate one character from another) or the reader’s comprehension ability was lacking (i.e. their frame of reference did not include some cultural or societal knowledge necessary to understand a particular word or phrase) or some external elements distorted the message during the transmission process (i.e. one of the pages was accidentally ripped out of the middle of the story), the original idea might well not make it into the reader’s head.

This decoding process, the reader trying to make sense of the words and pictures of a comic, is what creates the participation McLuhan was referring to. The higher the definition, according to McLuhan, the less participation is needed on the part of the audience. Conversely, the lower the definition, the more participation is required.

It is relevant to consider that the old prints and woodcuts, like the modern comic strip and comic book, provide very little data about any particular moment in time, or aspect in space, of an object. The viewer, or reader, is compelled to participate in completing and interpreting the few hints provided by the bounding lines.
—Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media

It is within this ongoing participatory process that comic fans become emotionally attached to the stories they’re reading. They come to care for Skywise or Alanna Wolff or Xal-kor as if they were real friends or relatives. They have real worries about how their favorite character might escape a villain’s deathtrap, not because they’re concerned about the character’s book being cancelled, but because they have an emotional attachment to Chun Hyang herself and don’t wish to see her come to harm.

This, then, leads to a source of conflict between comic book creators and comic book fans. Each individual has brought their own ideas and biases to the table when they think about a character; just like in real life, a character can play a different role for different people. A person’s role as a son or daughter is notably different than their role as a co-worker or a spouse. Different aspects of a person’s personality come to the fore under different situations, so any one person is often thought of in different ways. Characters behave similarly and, depending on a reader’s relationship to them, can be seen under different lights. Which means that every reader has a different vision of who a character is and how she or he should act. This almost inevitably leads to conflict as the ideas of fans do not necessarily replicate those of creators, especially when those creators are not the people who initially developed the character. Fans can feel as if their favorite character is not being written or drawn in accordance with how they envision the character. Their interpretation of the character might not say or act in the same way that the comic creator has depicted.

What frequently happens in this thought process is that fans begin citing the character as their own. They feel a sense of ownership over the character, regardless of who might legally own the intellectual property. While this can certainly be frustrating, even infuriating, for comic creators, the fans in fact do have something of a point. The character that is portrayed in the comic is not really the definitive version of the character; the reader’s interpretation of the character stemming from the decoding process is what is definitive. The reader subconsciously writes her or his own biases onto the character as they read, making the character unique to each and every member of the audience. If the creators are doing their job well, the differences between everybody’s vision should be minimized, but the variations are still there.

This is most visibly seen when a new creative team is hired to work on an ongoing comic title. When asked about how they will approach the comic, it’s not uncommon to hear something along the lines of “trying to return the character to his roots.” Despite this repeated claim, many creators still develop something noticeably different from the original. This is precisely because they, like every other reader, have interpreted the characters slightly differently and inevitably place emphasis on different aspects. The effects can be seen most easily in characters who have had long publication histories, spanning several decades of more-or-less continuous publication. Characters like Marvelman, The Phantom and Lucky Luke have seen radical transformations of character over the years; some of these are due to deliberate “reimaginings” but many are attempts to return the character to their original incarnations.

All of which is to say that when a fan makes implicit ownership claims over a character, they aren’t entirely wrong in this thinking from a psychological perspective. Their interpretation of the character is unique to and owned by them, and that particular interpretation is never actually seen in its entire complexity by anyone else. That’s not to suggest they have any legal claim on the character, of course, only that the characters and worlds they inhabit are only partially provided by the comic creators. As McLuhan pointed out, readers are required to complete the stories on their own and, in that sense, they have some justification for feeling as if they own the character, as the version in their minds was co-created by themselves.

It should be reiterated, though, that ownership of the names and likenesses of the characters is retained by the copyright holders (whether an individual or a corporation) under copyright laws. The feeling of ownership on the part of fans is somewhat justifiable, but actual ownership is not. Fans’ emotional investment in what they co-created, not surprisingly, can run deep and they have a vested interest in having “their” characters treated in the best possible manner, but it remains the right of the copyright holder to do whatever she or he might wish with the characters. When that runs counter to fans’ desires, this often leads to irritation on the part of the fans. “They can’t do that to my character!”

Movie director Brett Ratner experienced this directly while working on X-Men: The Last Stand. Despite advice from previous X-Men director Bryan Singer to avoid paying attention to Internet chatter during production and Ratner’s requirement of the script writers to limit themselves to only events that actually occurred in the comics, fans still became incensed.

They’re such rabidness fans, they’re so passionate about their comic book characters that they think that their favorite character should be the star of the movie. Someone might be passionate about Iceman being the star. So, you can’t win. Everyone’s going to have their own... You can’t make these people happy. I’m kind of the Anti-Christ to these comic book geeks.
—Brett Ratner, Starpulse

While it’s certainly frustrating for creators like Ratner to deal with this sort of criticism, fans do actually have something of a point. Each fan has his or her own version of the X-Men in their head. Maybe based on Stan Lee’s writing, maybe Chris Claremont’s, maybe Scott Lobdell’s, maybe Grant Morrison’s. But each reader has a view of what the X-Men is and should be that is absolutely unique to him or her, and no one has the exact same version in their head. So when Ratner puts his version on screen, fans cry out, “Ratner betrayed who and what the X-Men are!” Which is completely and totally valid, provided they include two more words: “to me”. The same quote again with those words added (“Ratner betrayed who and what the X-Men are to me!”) seems much more reasonable, and is an entirely understandable position to take.

What fans often seem to fail to recognize is that the version of the X-Men (or any character) in their head is not the same one that’s actually on the page. They, as readers, have interpreted what the creators put down on the page, patched it in with all of their own biases and past experiences and worldviews and whatever else is rolling around in their heads, and come up with a version of the X-Men that is wholly unique and, more significantly, inaccessible to anyone else. So of course Ratner betrayed that vision—he couldn’t have possibly known what that even was to begin with!

This difference between a fan’s interpretation of the character and the actual character property is frequently difficult to identify for an individual reader. Where the character on the page ends and the reader’s interpretation begins is a fuzzy line at best. This manifests itself in the form of a blurry line between the right to pursue happiness (i.e. reading enjoyable comics) and the right to happiness itself (i.e. having a character treated in exactly the manner the fan envisions). The former is generally considered an unalienable human right, while the latter is not. That distinction often proves difficult to fully comprehend and appreciate, and fans frequently find themselves acting as if they were themselves the legal copyright holders of a property. This often comes in the form of fan fiction, videos and artwork.

Friday, January 1, 2010

What’s Yours Is Mine, Part 1

It’s an old maxim in the comic industry that “every issue is somebody’s first” and, while it was aimed at writers and editors to ensure that all of the ongoing characters and plot points were clearly delineated in each issue, it can easily be turned around to fandom. Every comic book fan has an “origin story” about how they first came to love comic books, and most of them start with different comics. Something about the comic appealed to them at an emotional level and convinced them to pick up the next issue. It might have been the art or the writing or the colors. Maybe they identified with a particular character or the storyline really resonated with them. It doesn’t seem like a wild exaggeration to suggest that there are as many comic fans’ origins as there are comic book fans. Even a small sampling of stories starts to illuminate how different they are...

I had only read comics casually, and never saved them, until, when I was in junior high school, I was bored, and picked up a copy of Daredevil #120 at the Colonial Pharmacy... And this comic book showed me this whole sprawling universe, not just one where the characters had adventures from month to month, but one where previous issues actually mattered to the new stories—and where previous events on completely different series even mattered. I wanted to know more. I wanted the next issue, I wanted to find these SHIELD stories, I wanted past issues of Daredevil... I wanted to find out what I’d been missing out on... The story led me to the world, and exploring the world of the Marvel Universe led me to fall in love with the form.
—Kurt Busiek, personal communication

My father and comics were inextricably joined in my mind, Teen Titans and The Avengers forever linked to the interior of my dad’s broken-down old Dodge... Dad would drive me to the park, we’d shoot baskets or run the track, buy a stack of comics, and then head for the Baskin-Robbins. He’d park the car and we’d read comics side-by-side, scooping out our ices with little wooden paddles. There we would carry on long conversations about who was stronger, Superman or the Hulk, who was better, Superman or Spider-Man, what comics were funner, DC or Marvel.
—Valerie D’Orazio, Memoirs of an Occasional Superheroine

When Secret Wars came out, my mother bought me a Captain America figure (have no idea why) and I really dug his outfit. Then my friend was going to get comics and offered to buy me some, so I picked Captain America. Years later, around 14, I went to my first comic shop and tried to find the continuation of that Cap story. I did and I’ve been collecting comics ever since. That’s when I discovered Cap was a scrawny kid who wanted to do things his body just wouldn’t [let] him. I identified with that and wished there was a super-soldier serum for me.
—Michael Kaiser, personal communication

Superman Annual #1 is the first comic book that I remember picking out for myself. The ones I’d seen before hadn’t made any particular impression on me. Maybe it’s the four-square-and-solid look of this cover, with the heavily-mustered frame of Superman facing directly forward, bursting a chain by expanding his chest... This is clearly a special comic book.
—Bill Schelly, Sense of Wonder

By about age five, I had acquired some Justice League of Americas... but the first Marvel book that lit a fire under me would have been an X-Men in the twenties. I remember as a seven-year-old developing a crush on Jean Grey. What struck me about Marvel at the time was that subplots in one story carried over into the next issue. This was unheard of from my limited exposure to DC at the time. That led me to care about the characters.
—Russ Chappell, personal communication

For the record, Superman Annual #1 was released in 1960, the X-Men issues cited mostly were printed in 1966, Daredevil #120 is cover-dated April 1975, the Teen Titans title referenced debuted in 1980 and Secret Wars ran from 1984-1985. Regardless of the age or generation, comic book readers became comic book fans through an emotional involvement in or around the medium. Irrespective of the specifics, each reader finds something in the comic book compelling. That’s why they become fans of the medium, after all: there’s something inherent with the comics they read that speaks to them and makes them feel good. Which again hearkens back to the self-esteem issues from the previous chapters. People like to feel good and, for many, comics help to facilitate that.

Though certainly not to the same extremes that Dr. Harry Harlow’s experiments went, comics can be comforting and reassuring. Harlow’s tests with rhesus monkeys are well-known and covered in many psychology textbooks; he used wire-frame and cloth-covered mother surrogates to show that a child’s emotional attachment to his or her mother does not stem from the nourishment she provides, but the love and affection that accompanies it. What Harlow also proved—though this was not his intent—was that we can form deep emotional attachments to inanimate objects. His rhesus monkey subjects behaved around a cloth-covered fake mother in much the same way they would behave around their real mothers; it provided a sense of comfort and security to the young monkeys when they were confronted with strange and frightening situations.

While it would likely be considered laughable that someone could substitute a comic book for their mother, an emotional attachment to figures drawn on a page can still occur. Fans invest themselves emotionally in the creators and characters they enjoy and, over an extended period of time, that investment begins to demand a more active involvement. Not necessarily in the sense of participation and ongoing engagement with fandom, as I’ll discuss in the next chapter, but in the sense that a fan’s favorite comics are thought about more consciously.

In reading a comic that doesn’t resonate with you, it’s not terribly difficult to recall the basic exposition that occurs in it. (For the sake of readability, I’m going to proceed using only narrative comics as a theoretical example. The same ideas would apply to non-narrative works, but the additional verbiage to include them becomes very cumbersome for the reader.) Details might be sketchy, but the basic plot and structure would be memorable enough, but not much else. In other words, the basic factual elements of the comic. In reading a comic that does strike you, you’re likely going to be a more active reader and start thinking about elements beyond the basic story itself. You might speculate about character motivations or mentally extrapolate on plot points that weren’t sufficiently addressed. You might think about alternate endings or future installments of the story. Perhaps you imagine entirely new stories based on the same ideas and premises.

Mashall McLuhan considered this type of behavior almost inherent within comics. In Understanding Media, McLuhan described what he called “hot” and “cool” media. A hot medium was one in which a great deal of information for at least one of the senses was conveyed—“high definition” was the phrase he used. A cool medium was one in which only a comparatively modest amount of information is transmitted, forcing the audience member to fill in a lot of it themselves. With comics, readers are more frequently called to question what they are about. “Any hot medium allows of less participation than a cool one, as a lecture makes for less participation than a seminar, and a book for less than dialogue.”

Which speaks to his central theme of Understanding Media, and the line for which McLuhan is most famous: the medium is the message.

What he meant by that, as it pertains to comics, was that a comic book reader has to work out a great deal of the comic book story for her- or himself. Each panel is a frozen moment in time and it is up to the reader to deduce how the story progresses between one panel and the next. Scott McCloud discussed this idea at length in Understanding Comics, calling the idea of filling in the gutter space between panels a form of closure. This process actively engages the reader throughout the entire story and forces him or her to derive meaning from the work. Following McLuhan’s theory, the medium of comics is all about creating one’s own story from the snippets of information provided throughout a comic book.

The story in any given comic book, then, is incomplete until someone picks it up, reads it and develops their own story from it. The medium is the message.

To clarify, this isn’t to say that the story is complete for everyone as soon as someone reads it. Every story is incomplete for each individual until that individual reads and decodes it for him- or herself. Captain Victory and the Galactic Rangers #8 is a complete story for me personally because I have read it; if you have not read it yourself, it remains incomplete for you. I have read through the issue, taken what information was in the book and processed it, assigning some meaning to it based on my own experiences and background. For anyone who has not done that, the issue remains elusive.