On Fandom

By | Thursday, November 15, 2012 Leave a Comment
One of the reasons I wrote Comic Book Fanthropology was to help explain to comic book fans why other fans do what they do. You probably know why you like the comics you like, but why does the next guy or gal like something else? And why feuds can erupt between them. My hope was that improving people's understanding of the hobby would minimize those fights.

Honestly, I was under no illusions about how it would sell, but I thought it might make a little dent. That's partially why I serialized the whole thing online for free, and why I've kept it online since.

Adrianne Curry has been running a show on YouTube for a little over a month now called "Super Fans." It's a look at those people who make fandom their life. She spent the first five episodes looking at Star Wars fandom -- mostly Steve Sansweet actually. But with today's episode, she turns her attention to Alan Stewart and his Hall of Heroes.
Curry is one of those women who have likely had her geek credibility challenged. ("Fake fan girls" seems to be this week's topic.) She's conventionally attractive and cosplays and has no conpunctions about displaying her feminitity. She also goes out of her way in the first episode to justify her geek cred, so I suspect it's a topic that's been raised before for her.

I don't doubt her geek status. She claims to be big on Star Wars? That's good enough for me. But she seems, at least in the episodes so far, to miss the point of fandom itself. Sansweet touched on it, and I went on about it at length in my book. It's not about the collections. It's not about having more or bigger stuff than the next guy. It's not about the trivia. It's not about rattling off arcane facts that even the original authors have long forgotten.

The main reason for a fandom -- any fandom -- to exist to share your joy with others. It doesn't matter if you camp out in San Diego for hours on end in front of Hall H for Twilight or Futurama or Firefly or DC Comics, the reason you're there is to share that experience with everybody else in line. You're there to laugh and joke and analyze and commiserate and eat and sleep and tell stories and live. And if your fandom is so obscure that you can only find a dozen other people who like the same thing you do, the greatest joy you're going to get out of it is when you share that experience with them.

The problems start cropping up when a fandom looks at itself and begins to define a prototypical member. I'm going to quote from my book...
Looking at the existing characteristics of individual group members, they subconsciously create a mental ideal of what traits are most acceptable or most valuable within their circle.
Prototypes are ordinarily unlikely to be checklists of attributes... rather, they are fuzzy-sets which capture the context-dependent features of group membership often in the form of exemplary members (actual group members who best embody the group) or ideal types (an abstraction of group features). People are able to assess the prototypicality of real group members, including self—that is, the extent to which a member is perceived to be close or similar to the group prototype.
—Michael Hogg, Social Groups & Identities
What Hogg is saying here, as it relates to comic fans, is that people develop prototypes based on the best examples from fandom and then, with such a prototype defined, individuals can weigh their, or anyone else’s, characteristics against the prototype’s. In effect, they use the prototype as the basis by which to judge how much of a “real” fan someone is; a “real” fan would meet all or most of the criteria embodied by the prototype.
If you don't fit that prototype at all, you're not part of the group. This is why comic fans -- who've been decidedly insular for the past several decades thanks to the direct market system -- are generally thought to look/act like the guys on Big Bang Theory. Note: the guys on Big Bang Theory. The industry as a whole wrote off half of the population sometime in the 1960s or '70s. So the prototype developed into a decidedly male one and even when women were "allowed" in the club, it was because they had some mannish qualities. And on the flip side, women who looked more stereotypically feminine are seen as outsiders.

Part of the reason women started flocking to manga was that it didn't necessarily contain only superheroes, but part of the reason was because they were sold in bookstores instead of comic shops, and there was no defined prototype for manga fans. They didn't have to face down a large group of people who told them either explicitly or implicitly that they didn't belong. Same thing with the rise in Young Adult graphic novels.

Here's the thing about prototypes, though: they're not static. As more and different people join the group, the prototype changes to essentially become an amalgam of all the members. But if the group isn't willing to adapt and adopt people perhaps a little more removed from their prototype, the group becomes more and more insular. They become known for being uninviting. New people don't join and the membership slowly dwindles as old members pass on.

This happens in nature all the time. If, as a species, you don't try to incorporate some genetic diversity, you will die out.

Now what is the complaint about "mainstream" comics today? Too few people and those that are in the group are growing older.

There is not a damn thing wrong with anyone liking comics. And if you happen to know more obscure trivia about Ambush Bug than they do, that's great. But even if they are just a casual fan and only buy an ocassional Batman graphic novel, just let them! They're not in "your group" anyway! Your group is the one who does like the extended continuities and complete runs and collectibility. There's nothing wrong with that. And there's nothing wrong if they prefer emotional drama of Fruits Basket. And there's nothing wrong if they only like comics' visuals to give them ideas to make cool costumes. Let them do their thing, and they'll let you do yours.
Newer Post Older Post Home