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