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, 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