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, 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.