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 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?