Cultural Capital

By | Tuesday, September 19, 2006 Leave a Comment
I mentioned the other day that I'd seen the phrase "cultural capital" in reference to comic book collecting. I've been thinking about the notion since then.

The basic premise is that, within the realm of comic book collecting (and certainly other areas as well -- but I'm just focusing on comics here), fans use cultural capital as a method to determine social hierarchy; cultural capital being the knowledge and wisdom that one accumulates within the realm of the industry. For example, a newbie to comic collecting probably doesn't know the long histories of various characters and, by this cultural capital theory, s/he would be low on the social totem pole. Someone who's been reading for several years and knows the whole history of Spider-Man from Amazing Fantasy #15 onwards is higher up the food chain. The person who knows the whole history of the Marvel Universe is higher still. Comic book creators, because of their "insider" knowledge rate higher than anyone else, but still have their own internal hierachy. So a Mark Evanier or a Tom Brevoort still rates higher than, say, a Chuck Austen or a Robert Kirkman. So the notion of "keeping up with the Joneses" is more a matter of being more in the know than the next guy, rather than simply making more money and spending it conspicuously.

One of the things that's had me frustrated (for lack of a better word) is this feeling that I'm not as well-known/respected in the comic book community as I'd ideally like. And when I started thinking about how much cultural capital I have -- relatively speaking -- it occurred to me that there's another parallel here with "traditional" capitalism. Namely, that I'm trying to compare my fan-based capital with professional capital. I developed, I'm on the Board of Directors for The Marvel Chronology Project, I've had letters printed in at least a couple dozen comics, I was named "Comics #1 Fan" by Diamond back in 2002, I've got a regular column in The Jack Kirby Collector... but all of that is trumped by being a professional in the industry. Matt Brady (to pull out an easy example) makes a living writing about comic news. He's in the industry. Peter Sanderson and Will Murray are effectively back to being fans, but they both were in the industry for several years, still trumping me.

So can I really increase my cultural capital without going pro? Well, sure. And I think I'm already doing that by reading as much as I can realistically get my hands on. And I throw out the odd proposal here and there to try get a few things published. But I don't know that I can reasonably weigh my knowledge of comics against those who are in the field. It's not a fair comparison, not unlike a college dropout trying to compare his/her salary to Bill Gates'. It's an apples and oranges situation.

And, yes, I fully recognize that this entirely my ego talking here. How well-known I am to the comic book community, ultimately, is a means to feed my sense of self-worth, which I'm obviously not really getting from other venues. But it's still an interesting aspect of my place in the overall comic community, and I think it's worth examining.
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