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Conclusion, Part 2

Mon, 18 Jan 2010 08:01:00 +0000

Everyone who takes pleasure in reading comics can call themselves a fan. And even though you might not agree with their particular tastes in comics, they’re all welcome to the club. There are so many comic fans out in the world that there’s plenty of room for everybody, regardless of whether you’re partial to superheroes or romance or funny animals or yaoi or any other genre. Rest assured that there’s a group of folks out there who enjoy the same type of comics that you do, and would be thrilled to chat with you about it. Of course, that’s where complications begin: finding those others whose tastes and passions compliment your own. When I first announced on my blog that I was writing this book, in an attempt to ensure that I didn’t miss any significant points, I tried to solicit ideas from other fans on things they would like to see included. One person responded that I should probably decide whether to focus on fandom before or after the Internet really took hold because of the vast difference it had made. But my research had already shown that, while the Internet has indeed made a huge impact on the ability for diverse fans to get together, it hasn’t actually changed the fundamentals of their behavior. Fans were arguing about whether Superman was stronger than Captain Marvel as early as the 1940s; kids would trade comics during the Great Depression so that they could all share the same enjoyment from the same stories and talk about how great they were with one another; George Herriman’s Krazy Kat strips were so popular in the 1910s and ‘20s that a Washington, D.C. speakeasy illegally began appropriating the title character’s name and likeness to attract customers. The ability for communication throughout the world has improved dramatically over the past century and promises to continue doing so. There are more means than ever to get in touch with other people, and form communities with them so that everyone within can share the same pleasures of the same comics. But, as has always been the case, miscommunications do occur and, with more venues possible for communication, that also means more venues possible for miscommunication. But that shouldn’t take away from the very positive idea of reaching out and sharing your passion for something you enjoy with others. It connects you with others in a positive and self-affirming way. Fans are out there, not so that you have someone to tell what you thought about the latest issue, but so that you have someone to share your life with. Perhaps not as deeply or intimately as a spouse or significant other, but sharing an aspect of your life that makes up part of your very self-identity and reinforces all the best traits within you.There have been and will always continue to be disagreements within fandom as a whole. With hundreds of thousands of comic fans in the world, it would be impossible to get them to all agree on anything. But precisely because there are hundreds of thousands of fans, it’s easy, even necessary, for them to break into smaller groups that are more closely knit. That’s really the key to fandom: to find those people who enjoy the same types of things in comics you do and enjoy the time you can spend with them. Share your passion, your joy, with others and they’ll share theirs with you. I’ve presented here a model with which to view comic fandom. It’s certainly not the only model out there, and it’s not necessarily the most “correct” one. But it’s one that seems to work well as I personally look at fans. I see the arguments that erupt and the divisions between groups of fans; I see the unethical and sometimes illegal acts some fans take; I see the tensions between what fans want their favorite characters to do and what the creators themselves want to do. But I also see the friends who rally around another fan who just lost her job; I see the schoolmates whose creative energy feeds off one another as they plot out new story ideas; I see introverts connecting with a larger community in a way that was simply impossible for th[...]



Conclusion, Part 1

Fri, 15 Jan 2010 08:01:00 +0000

Although I had an interest in fandom previously, it wasn’t until I had read Bill Schelly’s The Golden Age of Comic Fandom at the very beginning of the century that I started gaining a deep appreciation of it. I made my first attempt at writing about comic book fans in 2002 with an essay that was intended to be part of a university press collection. The piece ended up being about 30 pages and presented a nine-step model for how comic book fans develop from the days when they first discover the medium up through when they might go on to become scholars or professionals in the industry. I made a sophomoric attempt at providing clear labels to each stage and used a Billy Batson/Captain Marvel metaphor throughout to show how quickly someone could jump from one stage to the next. I’m still pretty pleased with the auto-biographical comics I drew to accompany the essay but, in retrospect, I’m glad that particular project was never published.Since then, I’ve spent a great deal of my time trying to learn more about comic fans and fandom. Much of what has been written about fandoms in general has seemed to focus on either sports teams or science fiction. It wasn’t difficult to start seeing parallels with comicdom. I was astounded, in fact, when I read Harry Warner, Jr.’s history of early science fiction fandom, All Our Yesterdays, with how similar it sounded to what I had learned about comics fandom. If you changed the names and shifted the timeline forward about 30 years, it would’ve provided the same story that Schelly had written about. It was that realization that made me step back and take a look at comic fandom from a different perspective. Everything that comic fans were doing today—all of the activities I can stand here and observe first-hand—is not new. The specifics might change—websites instead of fanzines, more elaborate costumes, videography that’s comparable to something from Lucasfilm, etc.—but the emotions behind it are identical. Whether you picked up Famous Funnies #1 off the newsstand in 1934 or downloaded the latest installment of 2000 A.D. last night, the enjoyment you get out of that is eternal.People see things they like in comics. They respond to the characters and situations and even the basic visuals themselves in an emotional way. They invest themselves in the readings of the works and begin to identify with them. “This character is just like me.” “This is the same situation I’m in.” “I would love to meet a soul mate like that.” The comics become not only an attachment of sorts, but as a conduit for themselves and even a very frame of identity. The comics become a physical manifestation and realization of an individual’s thoughts and aspirations, and other fans recognize that.At Halloween every year, kids dress up as vampires and zombies and robots and pirates. And some kids dress up as their favorite comic-originated characters; Spider-Man and Batman are perennial favorites in my neighborhood. Those kids dress up like wall-crawlers and caped crusaders because they want to embody all the wonderful traits they see in those characters. Perhaps not a conscious level, but they’re responding to the works. They believe that something from those comics is valid and worthy to be incorporated into their own lives.In some ways, that’s all that adult comic fans do as well. Even if they’re not making elaborate costumes, they’re using their favorite comics as signifiers of what they are trying to get out of life. An outsider can’t necessarily guess exactly what, but they can be pretty confident that the fan finds something powerful there. Maybe they prefer the notions of family and togetherness in The Fantastic Four over the scientific curiosity and exploration angles. Maybe they enjoy René Goscinny’s sense of humor in Asterix more than any ideas about cultural independence. Maybe they really don’t care all that much for Hawkman as a character, but just thought it would be a costume that would really challenge their technical abilitie[...]



Blurring the Lines, Part 2

Wed, 13 Jan 2010 08:01:00 +0000

Robert Crumb proves to be another problematic example. He spent a great deal of time in his youth making Treasure Island Days comics with his older brother. The books were mainly for their own amusement and they stopped making them when they were teenagers. In 1958, they began a fanzine called Foo based loosely on the EC horror comics they enjoyed. Crumb eventually left home and began working at American Greetings in Cleveland, doing cartooning in his spare time. He eventually moved out to San Francisco and took freelance illustrating jobs to keep himself fed. He began submitting work to “hippie underground papers” and one publisher liked his work well enough to devote a whole issue to Crumb’s comics. That went over so well that he suggested Crumb do his own books, which soon turned into Zap Comix. Though Crumb initially did a lot of leg work to sell them himself, word of his work spread quickly. But despite gaining a great deal of recognition and attracting some economically impressive offers, Crumb opted against them, instead preferring to remain honest to his vision (to some consternation of his wife). It was only after several more years of work that he was able to financially support himself expressly through his comics. But exactly when that occurred is unclear and, in any event, recognition of Crumb as a professional appears to have taken place some time earlier and was what was the impetus for the generous offers that were extended to him.Further complicating matters from the other direction are professionals who then pursue fan-like activities. Wally Wood famously started his own ‘zine called witzend which bore many similarities to comic fanzines, but contained the work of professional creators who worked for major comic publishers. Creators were credited but not compensated, instead simply being given the freedom to express themselves. Steve Ditko contributed several original “Mr. A” stories and art to not only witzend but a number of decidedly amateur fanzines as well, again going without compensation. Their work for fanzines was decidedly much more akin to that of other fans with regard to their mind-set rather than professionals earning a living through their craft.Do I self-identify as an enthusiast? Yeah!—Jerry Holkins, ParticipateYes, I am still a comic book fan. I am absolutely a comic book fan.—Jim Lee, Comic Creators on Fantastic FourHey, I’m still a fanboy!—Carlos Pacheco, Comicology #3What is interesting about these examples and the hundreds, if not thousands, of others like them is that they highlight that comic book professionals are often a subset of comic fandom on the whole. Many who work in the industry began by engaging with their favorite comics beyond the basic reading. Indeed, comics like Penny Arcade, PvP and Least I Could Do became successful, in part, by their respective creators being very open with their interest in the medium. These comics, and many others like them, are not only the results of creating fan works in the creators’ spare time, but frequently also use comics and fandom as subjects and themes. The creators use comics to express their ideas about comics. They engaged (and continue to engage) the medium of comics on the whole and do not limit themselves to a single character or even publisher. With the improvements in technology, these very fans indeed can become publishers in their own right. The start-up capital required is minimal compared to a generation ago, and many creators today can go out on their own to produce, market and sell their creations. Breeden did precisely that with The Devil’s Panties. Comic fans have the opportunity to effectively step into the comic creation process at any level their skills and desire allow.What this means is that comic fandom can engage the medium at any level of participation they choose. In 1950, fans were largely limited to letter-writing and producing their own sketches. In the 21st century, fans can certainly still do that, of course, but they also h[...]



Blurring the Lines, Part 1

Mon, 11 Jan 2010 08:01:00 +0000

One of the things fans enjoy about comicdom is that comic book professionals feel very much a part of the comic fandom community. Professionals are generally seen as very approachable and can be found in many of the same pursuits as the rest of fandom. They post to many of the same message boards. They hunch over back issue bins looking for old comics. They draw sketches of characters they have no professional connection with. In many respects, it can be extremely difficult to tell professionals from other fans.In point of fact, many comic professionals were themselves fans before earning a living as comic professionals and they often remain comic fans as they break into the industry. Letter pages and fanzine credits are rife with the names of people who would go on to become well-known comic book professionals. Names like Wendy Pini, Ralph Macchio, Diana Schutz, Cat Yronwoode, Steve Gerber and Mark Gruenwald can easily be found in letter columns from their days before becoming comic professionals. Likewise, comic book fanzine contributors include the likes of Paul Levitz, Gary Groth, Tony Isabella, Mark Evanier, Dave Cockrum and Robert Crumb, all of whom went on to work in the industry. However, there is no straight path from being just a fan to being a comic professional. Nor are there ample clear markers noting when such a transition might occur. While it would be easy to note when someone might be hired by a comic publisher as a full-time employee, many comic professionals work as freelancers and take other jobs while trying to make a name for themselves in the industry.Jennie Breeden, creator of The Devil’s Panties, was able to document, to some extent, her progress attempting become a self-sufficient artist. She spent more than a few years trying to squeak out a living from her comic. In 2006, she noted on LiveJournal when she finally felt she’d begun making enough money to live from the earnings she received from her comic...So I quit my job. About a month or two ago...HolycrapHolycrap holycrap holycrapI am now, officialy, [sic] an artist. holycrap. I’ve been doing a ton of conventions, not going to work... and my bank acount [sic] has been increasing so I guess I’m doing well. Still eating Ramen mind you, but I can pay rent and fill up my tank. She elaborated on her then-current situation in her Frequently Asked Questions page in response to a query on advice for new comic creators...My flyers are still printed off the computer on hot pink paper and thrown at people. I pack my lunch at conventions and share a bed in whatever hotel. I’ve slept in a van in the parking lot and carpooled 14 hours with people I never met before. I’m still steeling [sic] muffins from the complementary breakfast. But I’m printing up more books and spending less time pitching my comic and more time selling it to people who have come to hunt me down at the conventions that I do every year.Although, she clearly wasn’t making a fortune from her comics at that time, she was able to keep up with her expenses. In Breeden’s story, she first identified herself as an artist when she tried making a go at drawing comics for a living. This would reinforce the notion that “earning a living” from working in the industry qualifies one as a professional. Interestingly, though, the job that she noted quitting to become a full-time comic creator was that of a clerk at a nearby comic shop. Technically, she had already been employed in the comic book industry, thus making her a comic professional years before The Devil’s Panties became a financial success.[...]



A Culture of Participation, Part 2

Fri, 08 Jan 2010 08:01:00 +0000

Some ideas work more naturally in some formats over others. An extended explanation for a minor plot hole or continuity error might be best served as a written article. Irritation at a change in the thematic direction of a comic might warrant a letter written to the creators. Trying to figure out how a drawn design might functionally work could lead toward modeling, either virtual or real. Sarcastic humor might work better in a comic strip format. Strong identification with the characters might persuade someone to fashion a costume of their own, based on their favorite. Idolization of the characters might lead creating “shrines” for them in the fan’s home. Naturally, a fan’s other biases and tastes will play into how they act on continuing their engagement as well. Artistically inclined individuals are more likely to focus on drawings or videos. Those with a penchant for writing are probably more prone to creating fan fiction. More technically minded people might focus on creating websites. This isn’t to say, of course, that a musician will necessarily begin writing music about their favorite comics, just that it might be a more natural expression for them.Astute readers will have noted that I have so far only noted a few specific forms of expressing the participatory aspects of comic culture. This is not to suggest that any one form of expression is necessarily better or worse than another (the qualitative differences in results would depend on the particulars of execution in any event) nor is it intended to even suggest one is more popular than another (a fact which could easily change after this is published). To be sure, any creative endeavor that uses a comic book or one of its characters as a springboard is a means of engaging with the medium beyond the initial readings, and it would be functionally impossible to list every option available, especially in light of constant technological improvements.Consider the fanzine. There were science fiction fanzines at least as far back as 1930, but they didn’t really come to prominence in comicdom until the 1960s. This was due, in part, to the availability of cheap printing equipment. As technology improves, the prices on existing technology drops and it wasn’t until the 1960s that access to ditto machines and mimeographs was cheap (and widespread) enough that fans could more readily begin producing their own fanzines. Similar progress can be charted online. Early access to bulletin board systems was limited to a fairly small number of people throughout the 1980s but, as computers became cheaper and faster, more and more people bought or gained access to them. But even four years after the World Wide Web was introduced to the public in 1991, it was estimated that only .4% of the world’s population was using it. As of this writing, that number has increased to almost 25% and is projected to continue growing in the foreseeable future. More people have access to the tools to create original content online than ever before and, consequently, more people creating than ever before. The 3,000 blogs that were online in September 2000 grew in just a few months to over 20,000 in February 2001.Clearly, those numbers say nothing with respect to the content at all; it seems certain that the vast majority of those 20,000 blogs had nothing to do with comics whatsoever. However, it points to the increased availability of materials used to create new content, whether that is wholly original or inspired by some comic or comic creator. With greater access to (in this case) publishing materials, a greater number of people took advantage of it. More people are able to interact with their favorite comics in more ways than ever before, and that is projected to increase by nearly all accounts. So regardless of the method of how someone chooses to express their appreciation for a comic, their options of expression continue to grow and become more readily available. The fanzi[...]



A Culture of Participation, Part 1

Wed, 06 Jan 2010 08:01:00 +0000

Though Marshall McLuhan defined comics as a highly participatory medium, he was speaking primarily in the sense of a reader’s direct engagement with comics themselves. The very act of reading a comic book is inherently participatory, he argued, because comics are a relatively “low definition” medium that requires readers to fill in a fair amount of the story themselves. What McLuhan did not speak to, however, given his focus on communication through media, was the continued participation that could keep a reader involved with comics after the initial reading process itself was complete. These ongoing efforts that occur outside the medium itself are what constitutes participatory culture as it’s generally regarded today.Mainstream news outlets are fond of highlighting those in costume at comic book conventions. They cover the events as they’re deemed big enough to be newsworthy, but the focus tends to be people dressing up in something flashy. This is understandable, to a certain degree, as the costumes provide a much more interesting visual than the vast majority of convention-goers. But it does point to a large segment of comic fandom that continues their interaction with their favorite after closing the latest issue of their favorite title. Readers’ extra-media experiences aren’t limited to costuming, of course, and have becoming increasingly more sophisticated as technological improvements open more possibilities for non-professionals. Fans have been known to paint, sculpt, write and record songs, produce videos, develop websites and, of course, write about their favorite comics and comic characters, often for little more than the joy they get out of sharing their enjoyment with others.This participatory aspect of fandom is frequently focused on in writings about the subject, in large part, I suspect, because it’s the most visible and most tangible. In attending a comic book convention, for example, the only people who you can be fairly certain are not there because they were dragged in by significant other are those who dressed in costume. It’s an obvious, outward sign of an individual’s appreciation of a character. Likewise, an artist whose sketchbook is filled with drawings of comic book characters is more likely to be a fan than an artist with a notebook of still lifes. A simple Internet search that uses a character’s name and the word “fanfic” will undoubtedly lead you to fans of that character. The assumption under all of these cases is that the individual would not spend that much time creating a costume, filling a sketchbook or writing an original story if they didn’t really enjoy that character in the first place. These types of fan activities are easy-to-identify expressions of passion, and often symbolize a fan’s cultural capital in that fandom.Let me to stop to make a point of emphasizing my phrasing there. The types of fan activities I’m discussing can symbolize a fan’s cultural capital. The artifacts created in such endeavors are not cultural capital in and of themselves. The cultural capital in wearing a really great Flash costume is not that the person has a Flash costume, but the fact that they took the time and energy to make a really great one for themselves. (Of course, this goes back to my much earlier point about not being able to actually measure cultural capital. The time it took to make a costume is estimated by everyone, sometimes including the person who made it; and the person wearing the outfit may not have had a hand in its creation in the first place.) So the end product—the costume, the illustration, the story, whatever—is a result of the individual’s cultural capital and not the capital itself. It’s the mental participation that really counts here.It’s fairly easy and common now to find evidence of active participation among comic fans. Many appear at conventions in costume, as I’ve noted; several fan musi[...]



What’s Yours Is Mine, Part 2

Mon, 04 Jan 2010 08:01:00 +0000

Although generally considered overly simplistic for widespread practical use, David Berlo’s model of communication does provide a basic understanding of the processing issue at hand. Berlo’s SMRC model poses that any person sending a message needs to first encode it in some manner and transmit it via some process or channel to a recipient, who then has to decode the message. In other words, a creator might have an idea they want to convey, so they develop a comic to express that idea. That creation process, according to Berlo’s model, is a form of encoding. The act of writing and drawing the comic is a means of translating the ideas in the creator’s head into a form that others can understand and appreciate. But that comic then needs to be passed along or transmitted to someone else; perhaps via the web or a graphic novel or a newspaper. The reader, upon seeing the words and images that make up the comic, needs to take in that information and process it so they can attempt to understand what the creator was trying to say; this is the decoding Berlo noted. The problem here is that the creator’s original idea may have been altered from the time it first formed in his or her brain until when the reader understands it. If the creator’s skills were poor (i.e. he or she could not differentiate one character from another) or the reader’s comprehension ability was lacking (i.e. their frame of reference did not include some cultural or societal knowledge necessary to understand a particular word or phrase) or some external elements distorted the message during the transmission process (i.e. one of the pages was accidentally ripped out of the middle of the story), the original idea might well not make it into the reader’s head.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 MediaIt 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. Fan[...]



What’s Yours Is Mine, Part 1

Fri, 01 Jan 2010 08:01:00 +0000

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 communicationMy 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 SuperheroineWhen 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 communicationSuperman 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 WonderBy 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 communicationFor the record, Superman Annual #1 was released in 1960, the X-Men issues cited mostly were printed in 1966, Daredevil #120 is cover-dated Ap[...]



Fans vs. Collectors vs. Nostalgics, Part 2

Wed, 30 Dec 2009 08:01:00 +0000

All of these factors tied together and prompted the idea that publishers could design comics to be collectible, thereby tapping into some of the after-market funds by creating an immediate demand, as opposed to the delayed one that generally drove the collectibles market. Early publisher gimmicks were simple, such as heavily promoting first issues or “significant” events, but there were enough comic fans that tried to cash in on the speculator market that publishers noticed sales spikes on those issues. By the early 1990s, they were promoting variant covers and pre-polybagged issues as well as heavily marketing “event” comics to mainstream media outlets. All of which encouraged a collector mentality among fans as well as non-fans eager to tap into a booming economic market.In recent years, however, the comic collector looking for economic gains has dwindled. In the first place, the aforementioned speculator market burst in the mid-1990s, forcing many people who had tried collecting allegedly rare and unique comics to sell them for a fraction of what they paid for them. Though some believe the number of those individuals is comparatively small.They actually thought all the comics they were printing were selling to eager fans, when in fact, I estimate that at least 30% of all the comics being published from 1990-1994 ended up as overstock in comics dealers inventories. —Chuck Rozanski, Tales from the DatabaseIn the second place, readers don’t need to be collectors the way they used to be. When Byrne was looking for old Fantastic Four stories, he had no alternative but to seek out the original issues in which they were printed. New issues rarely contained reprint material and when they did, often it was haphazard. Readers couldn’t necessarily count on the next reprint issue containing the story that immediately followed the currently reprinted one. Publishers, though, have paid more attention to that reprint market recently, providing a variety of ways someone can engage the same story. That same issue Byrne bought from the barber has been reprinted at least 15 different times, several versions of which have remained in print for years and some are available digitally. The need for a fan to act as a collector is no longer present, by and large, as they can still partake of their favorite stories without involving themselves with the preciousness of rare objects like fifty year old comic books. Which is not to say that there aren’t comic collectors any longer. When I first started, my goal was to get complete sets of Avengers, Captain America and Thor. I completed my set of Avengers last year, I’m one issue away from a complete set of Thor and three issues away from having the entire run of Captain America. Once I finish completing those, I’m going to try to finish my JLA set.—Mike Berry, personal communicationClearly, any number of old comics are sold every day both online and in physical retail locations. A large portion of comic conventions is devoted to retailers selling these paper artifacts. Some of these individuals might be completists, looking to acquire an entire run of a particular title or perhaps every appearance of a certain character. In cases such as these, though, psychologists have yet to define a clear cause for this behavior despite generations of examinations.Some have likened the process to the hunter-gatherer mentality of pre-historic man, but this does not account for the fact that pre-historic man’s gathering was more immediate and fleeting (i.e. they gathered berries and ate them soon afterwards) nor that not everyone collects. Others have made comparisons to various mental disorders; Maggie Thompson once jokingly suggested to me that everyone at a comic convention had Asperger’s syndrome. But research so far has been far from conclusive, as collectors tend t[...]



Fans vs. Collectors vs. Nostalgics, Part 1

Mon, 28 Dec 2009 08:01:00 +0000

In common usage, comic book fans are often called comic book collectors. Indeed, many fans have accumulated large collections of comics over the years and even refer to themselves as collectors. Not infrequently, they are, but I feel that there is a distinction between fans and collectors that needs to be made and addressed.Comics have, almost since their inception, had a temporal quality to them. Not only do they reflect the times in which they were created, but the very physical objects themselves were embedded with a certain transience. For generations, comics were printed on the poorest paper stock available, often using the cheapest printing techniques. They cost readers very little money to purchase and they were disposed of soon afterwards. Many people were perfectly content with that because, after all, a new installment would be out soon enough with all new stories. (In the case of comic books, this was generally monthly or bimonthly; in the case of comic strips, it was daily.)Since comics were considered a disposable medium, it should come as no surprise that few people saved them. Those that remained interested in the individual comics after subsequent issues were published were left scrambling to find any issues they might have missed due to spotty distribution. Issue two I found in the local barbershop. It took me three days to work up the nerve to ask the barber to sell it to me. I was willing to offer him cover-price for the slightly dilapidated copy. He gave it to me for free...—John Byrne, The Fantastic Four ChroniclesBut frequently, these quests were driven by an interest in simply reading more about the characters than an innate desire to have every issue. There were very few stories about any given comic character since they simply had not been around very long. Though it may be difficult to put into perspective here in the 21st century, when discussions about popular characters falling into the public domain by virtue of how long they’ve been around is not at all unheard of, the volume of comic book stories back then was not nearly as great. The above quote from Byrne refers to a time when there were less than a dozen issues of The Fantastic Four in existence; by acquiring that single issue, Byrne went from having half of all the FF stories ever made to having two-thirds of them. He was clearly enjoying the characters’ exploits and just wanted to see what other incredible adventures they might have.This is a relevant point since the fans, over time, will naturally accumulate an increasing number of individual comics. The periodical nature of many comics meant than new installments were constantly being published, and readers would soon accumulate stacks of comics just by their virtue of not disposing of them. Fans would hang on to older issues for their entertainment value; a good issue of Daredevil will remain a good issue of Daredevil no matter how often you read it. This is where the distinction needs to be made between a comic fan and a comic collector.We don’t call someone who buys lots of books a book collector—not unless they buy first editions, or other rarities. If they just buy books to read and keep them to reread, we call them an avid reader with a big library. That’s me—both with comics and with books. I buy ‘em to read them. I keep them to read them again. I have a lot of them because I’ve been doing this for almost thirty years.—Kurt Busiek, personal communicationA collector, by contrast to an avid reader, would be someone whose interest lies more in the acquisition itself, rather than the entertainment value derived from any given comic. They are more interested in either the “thrill of the hunt” or simply using their collection as a form of capital, either cultural or economic. While the hunters and cultural capitalist[...]



Promoted from Captain Marvel to Major Victory, Part 2

Fri, 25 Dec 2009 08:01:00 +0000

The end of the previous chapter touched on the different roles fans can play. These roles have some significance in how fans are compared to one another as far as their cultural capital is concerned. A child idly reading a Wonder Woman comic isn’t going to be compared to an editor of DC Comics. Fans who have been reading comics for fifty years are put in a different classification than retailers. Their roles within comicdom are such that put them in contact with widely different sets of data and information which are, by and large, not privy to other roles. An editor, of course, would know about line-wide sales numbers whereas a retailer would have access to local trends. An older fan is expected to know more simply by the longevity they’ve had within fandom and newcomers are understood to be in the process of learning the basics. Each role, however it’s defined by fandom at large, has a different set of expectations that accompany it—a prototype of sorts—that allows individual fans to be assessed within a comparatively homogeneous group. This has the effect of more firmly establishing tiers within fandom, but simultaneously leveling each of those tiers so everyone is gauged against a fair baseline. Not surprisingly, this doesn’t work quite so idyllically in practice. Part of the reason for being in fandom, indeed any group, is to enhance one’s self-esteem. While this can be, and is often, accomplished through the external positive reinforcement of valued characteristics, it can also be internally supported by demeaning others’. That is, while other fans can provide encouragement or advice, some choose to belittle others in order to make themselves appear better than they are. It’s a relatively well-worn mechanism for coping with low self-esteem to bring down those around you in order to feel superior to them, and it would be foolish to think that comicdom is immune from such tactics. The Simpsons’ own Comic Book Guy is an easy, albeit exaggerated, example. He regularly and casually dismisses all opinions that aren’t in line with his own; he always talks down to his customers, especially those who don’t immediately appear to have a purchase in mind; he continually makes comic book references regardless of their appropriateness for his audience in an effort to showcase his knowledge of the medium; a large proportion of his dialogue, certainly most of what is said to other characters, is sarcastic. Nearly all of his conversations with other characters involve his attempting to demean them in some fashion, and he’s shown very few positive character traits over the years. I can’t tell you how many times people have come up to me and said, ‘I know who you based that comic book guy on. It’s that comic-book guy right down the block.’ And I have to tell them, ‘No, it’s every comic-bookstore guy in America.—Matt Groening, TV GuideThe extreme exaggeration, both in the Comic Book Guy character and Groening’s comment, is where the humor stems from, of course. But the idea of a comic book fan trying to lord his or her cultural capital to both those in decidedly different roles and altogether unrelated outgroups is not unheard of. This type of behavior suggests that the individual is either unwilling or unable to distinguish the differences in value systems between her or his own tribe and role, and those of others. The stereotype that’s arisen from this bears some superficial similarities to the stereotype for someone with Asperger’s syndrome, notably with regards to social interactions. While it’s almost certain that some comic book fans do indeed suffer from Asperger’s, that particular stereotype of comic book fans is one that has largely fallen by the wayside, not coincidentally alongside a broader acceptance of [...]



Promoted from Captain Marvel to Major Victory, Part 1

Wed, 23 Dec 2009 08:01:00 +0000

Typically, when people think of capital, they think of the financial capital involved with business and industry. CrossGen Comics had issues with their financial structure and couldn’t afford to pay their freelancers. Gorilla Comics couldn’t raise enough external money and ran into difficulties as the creators tried to finance their own comics. Charlton Comics ran into troubles when their sales declined enough that they couldn’t pay to keep up repairs on their deteriorating printing presses, much less buy new ones. Starting a new business of any sort, including the likes of comic publishers and retailers, requires a fair amount of initial capital investment to pay for getting things up and running. Most business majors in college will probably tell you that, if you’re opening your own business, you’ll need enough money at the start to essentially operate at a loss for the first two or three years. But that’s not the type of capital that’s relevant to this discussion about comic book fans. Fandom can indeed be a source for this type of capital and there are conversations to be had along those lines; however, within the context of this book, this chapter will be looking at something called cultural capital.The basic notion of cultural capital was introduced by Pierre Bourdieu in 1973, and was elaborated on by him over the ensuing decades. His essential premise was that there are, in fact, three types of capital: economic, social and cultural. I touched on economic capital in the opening paragraph above. Social capital is, to use the vernacular, all about who you know. Cultural capital is the knowledge, skills and wisdom someone has and is regarded as having value. Bourdieu originally used these descriptions in relation to French society at large and applied a somewhat limited view of what was culturally valuable. That is, cultural capital was someone’s knowledge and appreciation of “classical” forms of the arts created by the likes of William Shakespeare, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Leonardo da Vinci. It soon became apparent, however, that his application of the phrase he coined was rather limited in scope and highly subjective to his interpretation of value. In the years since then, cultural capital has been applied more broadly to encompass the values of any particular group. You should recognize by now that when I’m discussing a group’s values, I’m talking about the group prototype.But Bourdieu still had hit on a good point: that money was not the only form of currency people used. People traded favors for political power; they educated themselves at schools to get better jobs; intellectual property was becoming as precious as physical property; grass roots organizations were making an impact on groups which had previously ignored their very existence. Clearly, something besides money was being bandied about as a means of exchange and this is where the ideas of social and cultural capital come into play.To make sure everyone is perfectly clear on the distinctions between the three types of capital, let’s define them in relation to the comic industry. A comic book shop owner has a fair amount of economic capital; he or she has whatever is in the store’s bank account, of course, but also their inventory of comic book stock and, sometimes, the physical building itself and the property it rests on. An individual comic book fan has much the same type of economic capital, although often at a smaller scale relative to the shop owner. Social capital within the comic industry generally revolves around the names many comic fans are familiar with: the writers and artists of the most popular comics, as well as the editors, publishers, and other professionals in the industry. In short, if you start name-drop[...]



I Yam What I Yam, Part 2

Mon, 21 Dec 2009 08:01:00 +0000

Stability and continuity are important aspects of life in general, and we often use rituals as a stabilizer in our lives. Centuries ago, man simply didn’t understand much of what was going on around him, so he fell back on rituals to provide some continuity in his life. He wasn’t sure if he would be able to even find a mammoth, much less be able to kill and eat it. So he developed a ritual to perform in advance of the hunt because it was a way to give him security and confidence before taking steps outside his cave into the unknown. He knew that, even though he couldn’t count on the outcome of the hunt, he could count on the activities proceeding it. By the twentieth century, man had figured out a great many things. Everything from fire and the wheel to creating and harnessing electricity to bring a small amount of daylight to the city streets at night. But while man’s knowledge has increased, providing a great many answers to what was previously unknown, we keep raising new questions at an increasingly rapid pace. So while I—a resident of the 21st century—can rest pretty comfortably knowing that I can reliably get something to eat any time I step outside my dwelling, I don’t have any clue what my long-term future looks like. In effect, my future is just as uncertain as that of our Australopithecus afarensis friend, Lucy—the only difference is that my future extends further out than my next meal. Alvin Toffler, in the early 1970s, noted this and began touting the notion of “future shock.” The idea being that life is indeed moving much faster than at any point in man’s history and we, as human beings, are being forced to constantly adapt ourselves to ever-changing status quo; further, that some people simply cannot mentally keep up and experience a form of culture shock within the very culture they’ve been living in. The worldview they have held suddenly seems wildly out-dated compared to the environment they now realize they’re in. In extreme cases, future shock can resemble post-traumatic stress disorder.A man living in the 1800s could pretty well assume that his day-to-day activities weren’t likely to change that radically over the course of his lifetime. He still had to question whether or not he could earn enough of a living to buy food and keep his belongings secure, but he knew that if he was a cobbler, his job wasn’t going to appreciably change at all during his lifetime. By contrast, today’s jobs are radically different than they were even ten years ago and we can counteract the emotional impact of that by using rituals to provide an ongoing continuity and sense of self to our own lives. Toffler argued that by ritualizing aspects of our lives, we are able to reduce the psychological impact of rapid environmental changes, the root cause of future shock. We are able to essentially turn ourselves off during a ritual process, giving us time to refresh and recharge ourselves, even in the presence of outside stimuli such as a comic book story.We frequently do this almost subconsciously. Primarily because the repeated behaviors that eventually become a ritual are enjoyable. In the case of a comic book fan, they might return to their favorite comic book shop every week when new issues arrive. Although at first this is simply in order to purchase the newest comics, it becomes a routine as the weeks roll on, and eventually a ritual. The fan might head for the same store at the same time, or enter the store in the same manner, or exchange the same greeting with the employees. Regardless of the particulars, and almost regardless of what happens in the rest of the world, a comic book fan can walk into their local comic book shop once a week to purchase their latest favorit[...]



I Yam What I Yam, Part 1

Fri, 18 Dec 2009 08:01:00 +0000

I defined comic book fandom, in part, by stating that it was a collective decision for someone to become a part of fandom. Simply being a fan wasn’t enough to join the ranks of fandom; you had to be accepted by fandom itself to be considered part of the group. These are all parts of social identity theory, and are a fairly well-accepted means of looking at groups like comic book fans. More recently, something of an extension of social identity theory called self-categorization theory was developed. Interestingly, despite its roots in social identity theory, self-categorization theory heads in an almost entirely opposite direction focusing on, not surprisingly given its name, the way an individual views her- or himself. Earlier in the book, I discussed briefly how members of a group develop a prototype. 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 & IdentitiesWhat 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. As Hogg notes, there isn’t a checklist of attributes one consciously goes through, but fans can generally make an almost subconscious assessment by mentally overlaying an individual with the prototype to see how well the two align. Think of it like comparing signatures by placing the two pieces of paper on top of one another and holding them up to a light. One signature is known as being definitive and reliable (i.e. the prototype) and the other being a signature whose authenticity you’re checking for (i.e. the individual).Conversely, this is generally not done for outgroups. While a prototype for an outgroup member may exist in the mind of a comic fan, they often simply apply the prototype to an outgroup member instead of making an actual comparison. In effect, this is stereotyping (and a large basis for Tajfel’s research on social identity theory). People default to broad categorizations to more readily identify and deal with outgroup members, rather than spending time to learn the specific idiosyncrasies of an individual. It is believed this is done to help facilitate faster communications by allowing people to rely on prior experiences with or knowledge of other members of similar outgroups.But for members of the ingroup, this comparison against the prototype provides a form of self-identification with an ongoing stream of feedback. Both social identity theory and self-categorization theory do have a fundamental assumption that says people have a strong desire to establish and maintain a generally positive self-image. It is for that reason that they join groups in the first place and why they enhance their existing characteristics to more closely match a group prototype. Indeed, one’s self-esteem is not infrequently a reaso[...]



Circles of Tribalism, Part 2

Wed, 16 Dec 2009 08:01:00 +0000

This then points to the structure—or lack thereof—within the broad definition of comic book fandom. Batman might sell a copy of each issue to 100,000 fans every month, but those 100,000 people break up into much smaller groups to enjoy and discuss the issue with one another. There might be a group of a dozen that meet up at the local library once or twice a month. There might be 100 or so over at one message board, and another 100 at another board. DC Comics has their own official message board set up for Batman discussions, which attract another crowd of fans. Others are likely using social media sites to conduct their discussions. Still others might limit themselves to private emails. The point is, of course, that there is not merely a single outlet for fans to get together and share their appreciation of Batman. Individuals will seek out other like-minded fans and congregate when and where they can find one another.Comiket was founded as an alternative meeting for people that broke from the manga taikai. They wanted to have the freedom of expression, to be able to parody, criticize and rewrite established works.—Ichikawa Koichi, The Otaku EncyclopediaEach of these smallish groups acts more or less independently, as outlined in the previous chapter. Each has their own social rules and mores they follow, and each group’s overall character is slightly different. However, many of the ideas are the same or similar since, after all, they are all united by the same appreciation of the same character(s). Will Brooker, in Batman Unmasked, drove home the point that, regardless of the specific interpretation of the character, there remains some unifying traits common among every iteration and every reading of the character. Whether any individual reader responds more strongly to the detective aspect or the martial arts expert angle or latent homosexual readings or simply the diverse cast of supporting characters, the unifying traits are the larger portion of what’s being responded to, which then provides a commonality among all Batman fans, regardless of why they first enjoyed it. As in ‘The Batman Nobody Knows’, each participant argues for his or her own interpretation over the others, regardless of its improbability—Julie Madison’s hero would be eighty years old, after all—and when Batman, shadowy and noble, appears to free them, each reads from him only what suits them: the beauty of a former sweetheart, a ‘faar out’ old amigo or a dude in ‘wicked armor’. It is a sweet, generous story and, I think, in some ways symptomatic of DC’s current willingness to allow a little play with the rules of the Dark Knight.—Will Brooker, Batman UnmaskedEach of the several hundred informal Batman fan groups in existence are acting independently; however, it’s almost certain that some fans travel in multiple groups, thus allowing cross-communication among them. Similarly, some Batman fans likely also travel in other non-Batman fan groups, such as those who enjoy Action Comics or Uncanny X-Men, which each have any number of smallish, independent groupings. Which, in turn, each have some overlap with other groups. The number and variety of overlapping fan groups would be so complex as to be virtually impossible portray in a Venn diagram, especially when you start including fans of particular artists and writers, companies like Active Synapse and G.T. Labs, and visual styles like ligne claire and sprite comics. It is then the culmination of all of these groups that would be the body of comic fandom, each one acting independently from the others but all sharing similar values and characteristics based on a common medium.As noted at the end[...]



Circles of Tribalism, Part 1

Mon, 14 Dec 2009 08:01:00 +0000

It is effectively impossible to count the number of comic book fans there are. In the first place, people go in and out of fandom all the time. The term “gafia” gained some popularity in science fiction fandom as an acronym for “getting away from it all” to shorthand that notion. (Curiously, the phrase originally was used in reference to joining fandom and getting away from the mundanity of the real world, but eventually reversed itself and came to mean leaving the internal politics and strife within fandom.) Another point to consider is that, even if one person is a fan of Wolverine, that doesn’t preclude them from being a fan of Teen Titans also. I suspect, in fact, that anyone who considers themselves a fan of comic books isn’t exclusive to one character or title. And since there’s no single, unifying body that covers all of fandom, a head count by way of comic book sales would necessarily include at least some redundancy. For the sake of simplicity, let’s assume the estimates of Diamond Comic Distributors’ sales numbers are equal to the number of fans of each character. If that were the case, Justice League of America would have had 131,420 fans in August 2007. The New Avengers, under the same assumptions, would have 117,906 fans. But even assuming those numbers are gospel, we have no way of knowing how many of those New Avengers fans also bought the JLA book. We can safely assume that at least 12,000 people who bought JLA didn’t buy New Avengers but that’s about it. Of course, using those sales estimates is rife with problems. First and foremost, they’re estimates based on Diamond’s closely-guarded actual numbers. Secondly, it only addresses the direct market of comic books, and not all of it, at that! While Marvel and DC have exclusive distribution agreements with Diamond, the same is not true of all publishers. Any comic shop can order books from a number of other sources, including directly from publishers in many instances. Furthermore, that’s just a portion of North America, and doesn’t even begin to include other continents.As noted earlier in the chapter on defining fandom, the multiple directory attempts over the years offer paltry numbers compared to even basic comic circulation figures. If books like JLA and New Avengers garner over 100,000 sales apiece, then even the combined total of the most recent The Fandom Directory and the WSA membership list (arguably, the best broad-based sets of this type of data that has so far been compiled) wouldn’t account for more than 20% of that.You can look to the 125,000 attendance number at recent years’ Comic-Con International as a guide, since convention organizers have worked hard to filter out dual countings. But, of course, CCI and events like it don’t draw in comic book fans exclusively. How many folks are there for Twilight or Star Wars and other licensed properties? Not to mention the certainly significant number of fans who simply can’t even attend. And here again, we’re looking almost exclusively at one country. Comics are popular enough to have conventions all over the globe from Barcelona to Tokyo.Using any numbers along those lines, however inaccurate they may be, does not address a very significant aspect of comic fandom: namely, there’s no way any individual could possibly be connected with tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of other people within the same group. A single, 15-minute conversation with 125,000 people would take over three-and-a-half years, assuming you spent absolutely no time sleeping or eating. It should be obvious, then, that most comic book fans do not actually interact with the vast majority[...]



Us vs. Them, Part 2

Fri, 11 Dec 2009 08:01:00 +0000

It has been something of a running joke within comic book fandom that Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons is the perfectly prototypical comic fan. He’s single, overweight, condescending, emotionally arrested, obsessive, sarcastic and socially inept. His self-image has little connection with reality, due in large part to spending as much time as he does reading works of fiction, and he has no real influence or authority outside of his comic shop. He is, of course, a pastiche meant to poke fun of the worst aspects comic book fans. Given that people join groups, in part, to help their self-esteem (more on this later) it is absurd to hold up such a collection of negative traits as a prototype. A comic book fan prototype, by contrast, has all of the characteristics of a comic book fan that are considered valuable or useful within fandom. For example, one characteristic might be the ability to identify an artist by the nuances of his or her linework—a trait that would be useful when looking at older comics that did not carry artistic credits. Another characteristic might be an excellent memory, which one could use to make connections between contemporary stories and older ones. It would virtually impossible to provide a complete list of every trait that could be assigned to a prototypical comic book fan, if for no other reason than such a list is mutable. These valued characteristics can change over time as they adapt to their surroundings and changes in the comic landscape. The specifics of what a prototypical comic fan looks like in the 21st century is different than what he or she might have looked like in 1970 in part because there were no such things as webcomics in 1970. Comic book fandom is organic and will continue to change as its membership changes.Likewise, the traits and characteristics of outgroups change with time as well, and new outgroups are constantly being formed. There was no such thing as a “Star Wars fan” prior to 1977 and no such thing as a “Twilight fan” prior to 2005; those stories had yet to be produced. Since both comic fandom and all of its outgroups are constantly changing, therefore, the interactions between and among such groups is dynamic as well. What it means to be a comic fan now is different from what it meant to be a comic fan ten years ago. The landscape has changed, both within comic fandom itself, as well as among all the outgroups.As new members are indoctrinated into fandom, they observe the actions and behaviors of existing fans. While each fan is an individual and has their own attitudes and mannerisms, commonalities can be seen by the new member across many of the existing fans. If a significant proportion of fans, for example, repeatedly cite a particular creator as talented, either directly by name or indirectly by his or her works, the new member is likely to adopt a similar stance. At least until they have a chance to analyze that creator’s work more critically themselves. Everything could be under consideration: from “is it acceptable to consider a creator’s political views when reviewing her or his work” to “is it okay to call a creator by his or her first name?” During this learning process, the new fan will also observe how fans act and react to other fans. They will learn who others consider the Big Name Fans (BNFs): that is, who is most respected and who has the most authority within the group. Interestingly, these BNFs are often those individuals who are themselves most closely aligned with the group’s prototype. Because these individuals have a larger than average number of those most highly valued traits among the grou[...]



Us vs. Them, Part 1

Wed, 09 Dec 2009 08:01:00 +0000

One of the most tumultuous times for the comic industry on the whole was the mid-1950s, when comics were under a seemingly constant barrage of attacks from any number of people looking for a juvenile delinquency scapegoat. Similar problems erupted more-or-less simultaneously in several countries, and comic book fans were frequently bewildered by the hatred and venom being shot at their beloved medium. Not only were comics collected and burned, but those who dealt with the medium were, at best, looked down upon. Retailers selling comics were boycotted. Creators whose livelihood came from creating comic books had to start making up other occupations when asked what they did for a living if they didn’t want to be shunned out of town. Children began hiding their comics under their mattresses, lest their parents confiscate and destroy them. The industry, collectively, had to ban together to deflect attacks from people no less powerful than the U.S. Senate. Although a few (notably EC publisher Bill Gaines) tried continuing their fights solo, it was ultimately those who joined together who were able to survive in the comic book industry. They saw the conflict very much in an “Us versus Them” mentality, and came to the conclusion that their only hope was to ally themselves under a united banner. The basic story is indeed quite old. Two different groups meet and, out of ignorance, don’t understand one another. This lack of understanding leads to conflict, and individuals near the conflict are frequently demanded to choose a side. “Are you with us or against us? Are you one of us or one of them?” Although this is often seen in terms of larger conflicts (i.e. war) it applies to almost all sizes and sorts of group dynamics. Think of the traditional cliques that spring up in school: jocks, nerds, slackers, etc. Regardless of what the groups are actually called and the precise roles they play within the school, they’re continually generated year after year, decade after decade. My high school had fairly small graduating classes of around 100 students each year, and yet nearly everyone still had a group they fit in with, almost to the mutual exclusivity of others. Acceptance into one group almost inherently prevented acceptance into another. The clique you associated with became your “us” and everyone else became “them.” This type of intergroup discrimination, exhibited in some manner in different cultures throughout the world, was studied at length by Henri Tajfel and John Turner, who developed it into their theory of social identity. The basic theory suggests a fairly simple model of human organization. In fact, it’s not that far removed from the classic “us versus them” discussion: a person views others as part of their ingroup or an outgroup. An ingroup can be described as just the collection of people who belong to the same group as the individual in question; for the purposes of this book, that will generally be “comic book fans.” Everyone not a member of the ingroup is, therefore, part of an outgroup. The distinction is not actually as binary as it might appear at first. If we assume our ingroup is that of comic book fans, an obvious outgroup would be “people who hate comic books.” But another outgroup might be “people who are indifferent to comic books.” Another might be “fans of Joss Whedon who read/watch everything he writes, regardless of the medium.” People in this last group will have read some Astonishing X-Men comics, but might not care about Colossus and Kitty Pryde’s relationship beyond what Whedon himself wrote. Nor [...]



A Brief History, Part 2

Mon, 07 Dec 2009 08:01:00 +0000

Within twelve months, comic fandom also saw the publication of other fanzines such as Don and Maggie Thompson’s Comic Art, coming out days after Alter-Ego #1 and focusing on the comic medium as a whole; G.B. Love’s The Rocket’s Blast, also created without knowledge of A-E’s existence; The Comicollector, an adzine spun out from A-E; On the Drawing Boards, a newszine spun out from A-E; and Joe Pilati’s Smudge, which featured future underground comix artists such as Jay Lynch and Skip Williamson. The fans who were creating these publications were also getting letters published and frequently writing amongst themselves. They formed a sort of correspondence community.I have been grossly underestimating the size of comic fandom, and considering it a subsidiary of SF fandom. It is possible that I read through ALTER EGO #1 & 2 too quickly, but the first inkling I had of the size of CF was COMIC READER #12 and then COMICOLLECTOR #7... I had considered A-E and other such zines to be the results of Double-Fans -- those who were both comic and SF fans. It took the recent zines to show me my mistake.—Bruce Pelz, The Comic Reader #13It was Ronn Foss who first began bringing the fans together in person. In travelling across the country, he would make stops at the homes of other comic fans, chatting with them in person and going over their collections. Bails followed suit during his professional trips. But in 1964, Bails found the ballots he received for the Alley Awards (the first awards formally given out for outstanding achievement in comics) were too numerous to count himself, so he invited many of his friends and acquaintances from comicdom for a party at his house to help tally them all. Almost two dozen people from various states showed up, making the event the first significant comic fan gathering. It would only be another two months before the first bona fide comic convention took place, in Detroit, Michigan. There, over a dozen dealers sold their wares, door prizes were awarded, and the H.G. Wells movie Things To Come was shown. Within a few years, interest in comics and comics fandom was springing up all over the world. Comic conventions began cropping up from New York to Detroit to Houston to Oakland, attracting professionals like Otto Binder, Archie Goodwin, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. New fanzine titles were coming out every month and underground comix began taking root in both in the U.S. and abroad; cartoonists like Robert Crumb and Gilbert Shelton were almost as famous in the Netherlands as they were in America. Fanzines and comix became the proving grounds for future creators across the globe like Joost Swarte, Alfredo Castelli, Brian Bolland and Vaughn Bodé. This increased communication encouraged fans to become even more organized. The first attempt at making a formal price guide came out in 1965. In 1968, Carl Gafford founded the United Fanzine Organization, a co-op for minicomic creators. The following year, Dean Motter, Ron Sutton and Ron Kasman helped form a comic club for students at York University in Toronto. Enterprising fans like Bud Plant, Chuck Rozanski, Dick Swan and Robert Beerbohm began dedicated comic shops and mail order businesses.Beginning in the early 1970s, comics fandom started becoming a business in its own right. Stanley Blair, a newcomer to fandom, started a weekly adzine called Stan’s Weekly Express. That it came out regularly and frequently sent its circulation into the thousands very quickly. As an adzine, it inevitably ran into problems with mail fraud and Blair took up the task of making sure t[...]



A Brief History, Part 1

Fri, 04 Dec 2009 08:01:00 +0000

One thing I specifically wanted to avoid in this book is making it a history project. In the first place, other authors have already written more extensively on the subject than I could. In the second place, I have a greater interest in the psychological and sociological aspects of fandom. I’m less interested in the Big Name Fans than who fans are generally and how they interact with one another. That said, I think it is important to include some history of fandom here to provide context. With this chapter, I will touch on some of fandom’s highlights from the past several decades; however, for a more detailed look at the history of comic book fandom, please consult some of the texts I cite at the end of the book.It's worth noting, too, that comic fandom’s history is primarily the work of white males in the United States. The U.S. had arguably the best cultural resources to develop fandom in the first place and Caucasian men tended to exercise their authority almost to the exclusivity of others. I wasn’t selected to be on the nominating committee of the Alley Awards. Don and I had been in the field the same length of time, had the same input, and Don was on the committee and I wasn’t. And I said, “Hm. Interesting.”—Maggie Thompson, The Golden Age of Comic FandomThough I’ve tried to ensure some measure of parity throughout the book, much of what’s written here is reflective of what’s available; that is to say that what this book might lack in balance is due, at least in part, to a lack of balance in both the comic industry and fandom on the whole. Fans of one type or another have been around since people began having enough time to think about something more than survival. But the type of fandom that comic fans might begin to recognize as something similar to our own began in the pages of Hugo Gernsback’s publication Amazing Stories. In 1926, he began the magazine as the first one devoted entirely to science fiction. The following year, he instituted a regular letter column called “Discussions” and published the names and addresses of those people whose letters he published. This provided science fiction fans with their first opportunity to speak with other fans. Amazing’s manager editor, David Lasser, saw the significance of fans being able to connect with one another and used his position to help launch the Scienceers, science fiction’s first formal fan club, in 1929. The following year saw science fiction’s first fanzine, The Comet (later renamed Cosmology).The significance of including the early history of science fiction fandom might be questioned here, until one learns of some of the early members of the group. The Comet was created and edited by Raymond A. Palmer, who would become the namesake of DC’s character The Atom in 1961. Julius Schwartz and Mort Weisinger, both later to become editors at DC Comics, helped conceive and bring to life the science fiction fanzine The Time Traveller in 1932. Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, creators of Superman, came out with their own fanzine, Science Fiction, later that same year. A frequent fanzine contributor throughout the 1930s, Eando Binder was the pen name of Earl and Otto Binder; Otto going on to write many comic books for Fawcett including twelve year’s worth of Captain Marvel. Also providing early crossover bridges between science fiction and comic fandoms were people like David A. Kyle. In 1936, Kyle’s fanzine, Fantasy World, mostly featured original science fiction comic strips and he quickly began using the subtitle [...]



Defining Fandom, Part 2

Wed, 02 Dec 2009 08:01:00 +0000

I was an early fan of Batman, and there are a number of photos of me sporting Batman t-shirts and playing with Batman toys before my fourth birthday, which I insisted had a Super Friends theme. I began to lose interest in comics as I approached puberty, but a chance reading of Fantastic Four renewed my interest with a ferocity that I hadn’t had before. I convinced my parents to drive me to comic shops and flea markets; I began writing letters in the hopes of seeing them printed; I put posters up on my bedroom wall. I drooled over the copy of Fantastic Four #23 a local shop had on display under glass, as it had a whopping three-figure price tag that my allowance simply could not even think of affording. These practices continued on through college. My part-time job at McDonald’s did give me more money to spend, so I was able to buy more new issues and older back issues. The graphic design program I was in gave me a deeper appreciation of the work that went into making comics on a monthly basis, as I began to understand how the production processes I learned in class might apply to publishing comics. I graduated and continued buying more new comics and older back issues. I tracked down copies of the unreleased Fantastic Four film produced by Roger Corman, and even started a FF website. But it wasn’t until I was well into my twenties when I read Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics and realized that, for as many comics as I had read and as much comic book trivia I had stored in my head, I hadn’t actually been a fan of comic books all those years. I had been a fan of superheroes who happened to be most frequently portrayed in comic books. Despite the fact that I had read comics in my father’s collection ranging from Asterix to Lone Wolf & Cub to Heavy Metal, I had never been especially enthused about any of them. They were merely ways to pass the time once I had read my meager collection a few dozen times. Compare that against my eagerness on Saturday mornings when I could watch The Batman/Tarzan Hour or Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends. Compare that against my joy of stumbling across an airing of the Kirk Alyn Superman serials on a local UHF station. I realized that, despite my contention of being a comic book fan, I was actually a fan of superheroes. That superheroes happened to be found frequently in comic books meant that I read a lot of comics, but I wasn’t particularly enthusiastic about the medium itself. It was only after that realization, and a concerted attempt at exploring the medium I had claimed to enjoy for so long, that I actually became a fan of comics themselves.The confusion, it seems to me, is understandable given the peculiarities of the American comic book industry. Without getting into a full-fledged history, the superhero genre came into popularity within American comic books in the 1960s and has dominated the industry ever since. For the past several decades, the options available for U.S. comic readers were largely limited to Marvel and DC. There’s certainly nothing wrong with the genre in and of itself, but with the predominance of it within comics and the dearth of it in other media (due primarily to the fiscal restraints of depicting super powers prior to the 21st century) it’s hardly surprising that the superhero genre is so closely associated with the comic medium. Certainly as of this writing, the phrase “comic book movie” is tossed around with films featuring superheroes like Sky High and My Super Ex-Girlfriend despite neither of the[...]



Defining Fandom, Part 1

Mon, 30 Nov 2009 08:01:00 +0000

The first task necessary in analyzing something as amorphous as comic book fandom is to define who exactly we need to look at. Who are these people generally defined as comic book fans, and how can they be readily identified and studied? Coming to such a conclusion isn’t nearly as tidy as one would hope. In the first place, comic book publishers do not have handy databases of their readers. Most comics are purchased through third party retailers, not through the classic subscription services some publishers offer. Even during the headiest days of comic subscriptions, many were still bought from newsstands and drug stores. Publishers’ websites and online forums (both of which are a recent addition to comics’ marketing mix anyway) generally do not require any sort of registration. Fan letters written in to publishers sometimes—but not always—contained information that might be useful in identifying readers, but that information was largely discarded after a small handful of letters had been typeset for publication. There have been multiple attempts at fandom directories over the years, and ones that continue today. But the number of names and addresses these generate is often only the smallest percentage of sales of even a single comic, and are clearly inadequate for trying to define the entirety of fandom. The entire roster of the WSA Program (more on this in the next chapter) never broke 1,500 members throughout the 1970s and was eventually disbanded entirely in the mid-1980s. The Fandom Directory, which began boasting “over 20,000” listings in 1992, still admits that almost half of the entries are, in fact, retailers.Let’s take a step back and look at what fandom is on a more general level. The term “hobby” first appeared in relation to the “hobby horse”—an artificial horse used originally in a specific type of dance. By the 1500s, the term broadened a bit to include any sort of mock horse and it was frequently used to speak of a child’s toy (as children were the ones who had the most use of fake horses). It took about a century for the word “hobby” to stand on its own and carry the meaning we generally associate with it today, with the original tie being that, like a hobby horse, one’s hobbies don’t really go anywhere. The reason, of course, that a term like hobby was needed was because people began to develop technology sufficiently advanced enough that they weren’t required to focus on their survival every waking moment. While there was certainly entertainment earlier than the sixteenth century, there was still a great deal of time spent in making it to the next day. What free time one might have had could be spent in hobby-like pursuits, but not in sufficient quantity to really need a name for it. One could hardly say they played cards as a hobby if they only played once in a while; it would have been considered a pastime at most.Technology continued to improve, though, and provide people with more free time. People not only had enough time to pursue an outside interest, but they could afford to pursue it often enough and with enough intensity that something stronger than “hobby” was needed to express the greater enthusiasm one put towards a favored distraction. A “fan” is, according to Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, is “an ardent admirer or enthusiast.” There are differing accounts of how the word came in to common usage, although the two most plausible origins stem from the words “fancy” (having a[...]



Introduction

Fri, 27 Nov 2009 08:01:00 +0000

The interest in fandoms of all sorts has been gaining traction in recent years and, as someone who’s had an interest in the subject for quite some time, I am thrilled to see so much attention given to the topic. However, the discussions I have been seeing have generally fallen into one of three camps: historical recountings, examinations of very particular exhibitions of fandom, and strictly academic papers. While all three areas are laudable and well-worth studying in their own rights, there has yet to be (so far as I can tell) a “definitive” text written on the subject of comic fandom for your average fan. Historical accounts frequently focus on the dealings of a handful of specific individuals personally known by the writer, and often follow the exploits of relatively local communities and select groups, with nods towards national trends by citing the works of Big Name Fans. These works are generally very genuine and provide a wealth of details about certain niches within fandoms, but they’re inherently limited to those people who are/were most active in fan communities. The people who publish fanzines and organize conventions and get interviewed in the local paper. While those individuals are undoubtably fans and their work within fan circles is note-worthy, it glosses over the many more fans who might buy their favorite comics every week and just chat amongst a small group of friends. While the Big Name Fans can and often do have a greater impact on the direction of fandom as a whole, without the hundreds of thousands of other fans you’ve never heard of, there would effectively be no fandom at all. While I do cite some fans by name throughout the book, my efforts here are intended to speak towards all comic fans, regardless of their relative notoriety.The way fandom exhibits itself in unique instances is certainly useful for studying the particulars of how a LiveJournal fan fiction community acts, for example, but is too narrow in scope to provide a view of comic book fandom as a whole. Even Dr. Fredric Wertham, whose unscientific and intentionally incendiary Seduction of the Innocent caused the comic book industry so many problems in the 1940s, seemed to later recognize that the positive and creative self-expression seen in fanzines was not necessarily representative of comic fans as a whole. The individual works that come out of fandom and the small fan communities that they sprout from are, again, note-worthy but neglect the hundreds of thousands who still consider themselves part of fandom but cannot or do not participate in such a manner. I do address this participatory culture in one of the later chapters, but most of this book remains applicable to all fans at all levels of engagement with the rest of comicdom.Finally, academic papers about fandom are, well, academic by their nature and tend not to be very accessible by the general population. This is, in part, because of implicit and explicit requirements academic researchers need to follow in order to get published. They need to go through tedious (to non-academics) explanations of their methodologies, account for all data outlying a normal distribution curve and provide far math than many people care to deal with on any given day. Many are also difficult to read because their authors are scientists primarily, and not writers. Their language and sentence structure can sometimes come across as stiff and unengaging. I have more experience as a writer and less [...]