Comic Book Fanthropology

By | Tuesday, September 08, 2009 14 comments
I've had an interest in the notion of comic book fandom for several years now. When my interest started, there was almost nothing written on the subject and my early research materials were actually written about science fiction fandom, in which I noticed many parallels. While there's still not exactly a wealth of information about comic book fandom out there, there does seem to be a growing interest in the notion of fandom in general. And because of that, I think the time is ripe for me to finally write that damned book I've been threatening to write for at least the past several years.

I haven't started before now because I've never felt that I really knew as much about the subject as I wanted. Or so I've told myself. But some of the research I've done lately suggests that I know a heck of a lot more than many (most?) people who are interested in the subject, and I can write better than them to boot. Coupled with the coming zeitgeist of an interest in fandom, I need to be out there with something soon if I want to capture any of that lightning in a bottle.

My book, as I currently see it, will not be a history of comic book fandom (although I figure I will need to devote an early chapter to it). It will not be a personal history/memoir of my life, such as it's been, in fandom (although I also figure I'll drop more than a few personal anecdotes). What I'd like to attempt is to look at comic book fans, en totem, and explain the who/what/where/why/how of these people. Not the specifics of who did what when, but the larger picture of why certain types of people become fans and how they act within fandom. Furthermore, I'll be writing it in a way that's more academic in nature, but still easily readable/accessible to non-academics. (Much as how I try to write this blog.)

I'm bringing this up here today for two reasons. First, I'd like to solicit help from anyone who's interested in contributing to my book. I plan on including some mini-biographies of different fans -- notables like Jerry Bails and Tom Fagan, but also some folks who maybe aren't as widely known. If you'd like to be considered for inclusion in this capacity, go ahead and leave a comment to this post with a way I can get in contact with you. (I won't make any promises, since I don't know how many responses I'll get, but I'm all for more thoughts and opinions. Even if I don't use the all of the bios, I'd love to include quotes and insights throughout the main portion of the book.)

I'd also like to get people's thoughts on particular aspects of comic fandom they'd like to see covered. Is there more interest in communication methods from pre-internet days than message boards and online social networks? Would you not read the book at all if there were even the merest hint of mentioning slash fiction? Any interest in seeing pictures of comic fandom, past and present? What would you consider worth seeing in a book like this?

Any anecdotes, insights, contributions, thoughts, opinions and/or suggestions would be greatly appreciated.
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Matthew E said...

I don't know what kind of use you can make of me, but if you can think of anything, I'm willing.

mjk9910 said...

I think this sounds like a worthwhile project. I immediately think of the long discussions I almost inevitably end up in with an old friend (both of us now over 30), whom I see once or twice a year now. Even though neither of us really follows Marvel very closely we'll end up talking at length about how this character was ruined, or how that should have been done, etc., etc.

If this isn't going to be a history of fandom, I kind of suspect you'll have to decide whether to focus on fandom before or after the internet.

I also kind of envision it being a significant task to define positives in comic fandom, simply because there's probably a near-bottomless well of horror stories. Just as a relatively mild example, remember the "Sue sucks please kill her" letters in the FF during the late 80s?

One could go on all day with the OCD/freakshow element. Which could even make a pretty successful book. :) But probably not what you're aiming for!

joelmead said...

I sort of started in fandom as TRIPWIRE, the magazine that I publish, began life as a photocopied, stapled A4 magazine so if it's of any use and you'd like a UK perspective, feel free to email me:

Tommy Raiko said...

Just a thought: you might want to take a look at the book COMIC BOOK CULTURE: Fanboys and True Believers by Matthew J. Pustz, published by the University Press of Mississippi in 1999 or 2000. The book is ostensibly a bit of an academic investigation/social history of the comics fandom phenomenon, but it has been criticized as being narrowly researched (the author didn't survey a great number of fans, conventions, or stores) and of presenting pre-conceived conclusions as confirmed from its largely anecdotal descriptions.

Whatever your book winds up being, it might be worthwhile to take a look at that earlier one. That may help you define what you want your book to do that the earlier one didn't.

@Matt @Joel - Thanks. I'll contact you both later.

@mjk9910 - Actually, fans haven't changed much from the pre-internet days. The same arguments and communities were around beforehand, just smaller and not digital in nature.

@Tommy - I read Pustz's book several years ago and wasn't impressed; it struck me as very superficial. I did pull it out again recently to make appropriate notes.

Maddy said...

I'd also like to get people's thoughts on particular aspects of comic fandom they'd like to see covered.

In such a book I would be interested in seeing something about the tensions between mainstream comics and fans and what some fans expect or desire (or demand) to see in comics, with respect to diversity and equality (women in comics, seeing minorities represented, etc). The Project Girl Wonder campaign, for instance.

Something that I think would also be fascinating is piracy, and how it may be influencing publishing decisions/methods, and maybe the fans themselves who proliferate pirated comics.

And in relation to that, I think something like creator-fan interaction would be an interesting topic to explore as well. Comics are kind of unique in that there are so many creators, and many of those creators tend to have active online presences, either on their own sites or showing up on message boards.

Maybe it's because there are so many people employed in making comics, and that comics are a niche market, there's always big potential for fandom to influence the product they consume. But at the same time, comics themselves often invite this, what with the phone-in for Jason Todd's death or today Dan Didio saying he'll renumber Wonder Woman if he gets 600 letters about it.

Also, I would think something like scans_daily would be a pretty meaty topic, given that it can be related to all the topics above. It's also an interesting case, particularly in light of all the "Look out, there are girls at comic-con!" discussion lately, given that scans_daily emerged out of an online fandom culture that is primarily populated by women, and comics are usually male-dominated in terms of story content and employment within the industry.

I'd also argue that Internet culture and comics fandom interacting has changed, and will continue to change, comics fandom.

The book "Black Superheroes, Milestone Comics, and Their Fans" by Jeffrey A. Brown is a good companion to the Comic Book Culture book. It's better written and has better ideas. I would say about half of the book specifically relates to black and minority issues, most of it is relatable to comic fans as a whole and it kind of creates a psychological profile of the fan.

@minorhenchman - I read Brown's book a few years ago. He had a lot of good thoughts in there, and I definitely plan on expanding on his points about cultural capital. (I've got a 1997 paper of his written on that point as well that I'm using for reference.) I didn't like, however, his coming from the standpoint of, "Hey, comics aren't just for kids any more." I think starting from the basic premise is inherently apologetic and limiting.

There's also a book called "Sense Of Wonder" by Bill Schelly that I haven't read. It's a memoir by an early fanzine writer. I would recommend The Comic Book Heroes by Gerard Jones and Will Jacobs is a good anecdotal history of comics with some good bits on fandom.

Got and read both of those, too. Good anecdotes, but a little too specific for me to reference much here.

David said...

I enjoy reading your blog and look forward to your topic, but, dude -- the Putsz book was written at least 12 years ago, in the middle of the most miserable years of comics fandom, at a time when people were still arguing whether comics deserved academic attention, much less whether comic fans deserved such attention. (Jenkins was only just disseminating into the academic vocabulary.)

To call Putsz's project superficial underestimates what difference 12 years can make. And it underestimates how difficult it is to push such a project through a university press. Was it superficial given this context?

Can you do better? You have to, or there's no reason to read what you write.

@David -- I read Pustz's book within a year or two of it coming out in late 1999, primarily because I was already starting to think about writing my own book on the subject. I don't mean to dismiss him or it too casually, but I do recall being relieved that it didn't really cover anything very substantive, which left the door open for me to write my book. I do appreciate the problems of getting published through a university press (I've actually been involved in several failed UP projects) but his book was just fairly documentary in nature. "Here are examples of comic book fans and types of things they do." It answers the basic 'what are comic book fans' question.

What I'm more interested in, and where I do indeed hope I can do better, is addressing the who/what/where/when/why/how angles of fandom. I really want it to be the Understanding Comics of fandom; I want it to be THE book people reference when they're discussing or writing about fandom. When a couple of fans start arguing about whether Batman or Captain America would win in a fight, I want to be in the backs of everybody's mind as they think, "Oh, THAT'S why they're arguing about this!"

Ambitious? Yes. But, as you suggest, there's no reason to write it if I don't at least try to make it just that good. Whether or not I succeed... we'll have to wait and see, but I'm confident enough that I can do this, and do it well, that I'm willing to put my ego/reputation/status on the line here.

David said...

Fair enough. I suppose my response was rooted mostly in wanting to appreciate what you achieve without having to denigrate the work that came before.

And "nothing substantial" sounds like it comes less from a denigration than from a different theoretical orientation; Putsz was doing descriptive research -- the kind that would still get someone tenure at some schools. But in other schools, descriptive social research is not the end, but the tool to enable some larger theoretical conclusions. Maybe.

If you pretend that Putsz and Kleefeld are the same person, then Putsz is early Henry Jenkins, making empirical discoveries about real audiences. Kleefeld, I am hoping, is later Jenkins -- the Jenkins of "Convergence Culture" whose empirical work is now shown to resonate and reveal insights within cultural and media systems.


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