This decoding process, the reader trying to make sense of the words and pictures of a comic, is what creates the participation McLuhan was referring to. The higher the definition, according to McLuhan, the less participation is needed on the part of the audience. Conversely, the lower the definition, the more participation is required.
It is relevant to consider that the old prints and woodcuts, like the modern comic strip and comic book, provide very little data about any particular moment in time, or aspect in space, of an object. The viewer, or reader, is compelled to participate in completing and interpreting the few hints provided by the bounding lines.
—Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media
It is within this ongoing participatory process that comic fans become emotionally attached to the stories they’re reading. They come to care for Skywise or Alanna Wolff or Xal-kor as if they were real friends or relatives. They have real worries about how their favorite character might escape a villain’s deathtrap, not because they’re concerned about the character’s book being cancelled, but because they have an emotional attachment to Chun Hyang herself and don’t wish to see her come to harm.
This, then, leads to a source of conflict between comic book creators and comic book fans. Each individual has brought their own ideas and biases to the table when they think about a character; just like in real life, a character can play a different role for different people. A person’s role as a son or daughter is notably different than their role as a co-worker or a spouse. Different aspects of a person’s personality come to the fore under different situations, so any one person is often thought of in different ways. Characters behave similarly and, depending on a reader’s relationship to them, can be seen under different lights. Which means that every reader has a different vision of who a character is and how she or he should act. This almost inevitably leads to conflict as the ideas of fans do not necessarily replicate those of creators, especially when those creators are not the people who initially developed the character. Fans can feel as if their favorite character is not being written or drawn in accordance with how they envision the character. Their interpretation of the character might not say or act in the same way that the comic creator has depicted.
What frequently happens in this thought process is that fans begin citing the character as their own. They feel a sense of ownership over the character, regardless of who might legally own the intellectual property. While this can certainly be frustrating, even infuriating, for comic creators, the fans in fact do have something of a point. The character that is portrayed in the comic is not really the definitive version of the character; the reader’s interpretation of the character stemming from the decoding process is what is definitive. The reader subconsciously writes her or his own biases onto the character as they read, making the character unique to each and every member of the audience. If the creators are doing their job well, the differences between everybody’s vision should be minimized, but the variations are still there.
This is most visibly seen when a new creative team is hired to work on an ongoing comic title. When asked about how they will approach the comic, it’s not uncommon to hear something along the lines of “trying to return the character to his roots.” Despite this repeated claim, many creators still develop something noticeably different from the original. This is precisely because they, like every other reader, have interpreted the characters slightly differently and inevitably place emphasis on different aspects. The effects can be seen most easily in characters who have had long publication histories, spanning several decades of more-or-less continuous publication. Characters like Marvelman, The Phantom and Lucky Luke have seen radical transformations of character over the years; some of these are due to deliberate “reimaginings” but many are attempts to return the character to their original incarnations.
All of which is to say that when a fan makes implicit ownership claims over a character, they aren’t entirely wrong in this thinking from a psychological perspective. Their interpretation of the character is unique to and owned by them, and that particular interpretation is never actually seen in its entire complexity by anyone else. That’s not to suggest they have any legal claim on the character, of course, only that the characters and worlds they inhabit are only partially provided by the comic creators. As McLuhan pointed out, readers are required to complete the stories on their own and, in that sense, they have some justification for feeling as if they own the character, as the version in their minds was co-created by themselves.
It should be reiterated, though, that ownership of the names and likenesses of the characters is retained by the copyright holders (whether an individual or a corporation) under copyright laws. The feeling of ownership on the part of fans is somewhat justifiable, but actual ownership is not. Fans’ emotional investment in what they co-created, not surprisingly, can run deep and they have a vested interest in having “their” characters treated in the best possible manner, but it remains the right of the copyright holder to do whatever she or he might wish with the characters. When that runs counter to fans’ desires, this often leads to irritation on the part of the fans. “They can’t do that to my character!”
Movie director Brett Ratner experienced this directly while working on X-Men: The Last Stand. Despite advice from previous X-Men director Bryan Singer to avoid paying attention to Internet chatter during production and Ratner’s requirement of the script writers to limit themselves to only events that actually occurred in the comics, fans still became incensed.
They’re such rabidness fans, they’re so passionate about their comic book characters that they think that their favorite character should be the star of the movie. Someone might be passionate about Iceman being the star. So, you can’t win. Everyone’s going to have their own... You can’t make these people happy. I’m kind of the Anti-Christ to these comic book geeks.
—Brett Ratner, Starpulse
While it’s certainly frustrating for creators like Ratner to deal with this sort of criticism, fans do actually have something of a point. Each fan has his or her own version of the X-Men in their head. Maybe based on Stan Lee’s writing, maybe Chris Claremont’s, maybe Scott Lobdell’s, maybe Grant Morrison’s. But each reader has a view of what the X-Men is and should be that is absolutely unique to him or her, and no one has the exact same version in their head. So when Ratner puts his version on screen, fans cry out, “Ratner betrayed who and what the X-Men are!” Which is completely and totally valid, provided they include two more words: “to me”. The same quote again with those words added (“Ratner betrayed who and what the X-Men are to me!”) seems much more reasonable, and is an entirely understandable position to take.
What fans often seem to fail to recognize is that the version of the X-Men (or any character) in their head is not the same one that’s actually on the page. They, as readers, have interpreted what the creators put down on the page, patched it in with all of their own biases and past experiences and worldviews and whatever else is rolling around in their heads, and come up with a version of the X-Men that is wholly unique and, more significantly, inaccessible to anyone else. So of course Ratner betrayed that vision—he couldn’t have possibly known what that even was to begin with!
This difference between a fan’s interpretation of the character and the actual character property is frequently difficult to identify for an individual reader. Where the character on the page ends and the reader’s interpretation begins is a fuzzy line at best. This manifests itself in the form of a blurry line between the right to pursue happiness (i.e. reading enjoyable comics) and the right to happiness itself (i.e. having a character treated in exactly the manner the fan envisions). The former is generally considered an unalienable human right, while the latter is not. That distinction often proves difficult to fully comprehend and appreciate, and fans frequently find themselves acting as if they were themselves the legal copyright holders of a property. This often comes in the form of fan fiction, videos and artwork.