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 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.