Fans have long held a vital place in the comic book industry. Any historical account of comics you come across shows this fact to be true. They all cite the importance of lettercolumns in the old days, how fans interacted with creators and helped shape how the stories came about. The sheer number of creators who started out as letterhacks, even today, is evidence of that fact. Similarly, fanzines and conventions were instrumental in the shaping of comic fandom as a culture.
In the present, fandom is just as instrumental in determining the comic industry’s future. The set-up of the direct market as it stands today leads to a kind of pandering to us, the established fanbase, in that comics are almost solely produced and almost solely available to the existing fans alone. Bradford W. Wright quotes Paul Levitz in his book Comic Book Nation as he speaks on this very subject, saying “‘for better or for worse, a majority of comics published today are produced for the entertainment of comics fans,’ and the major publishers were ‘consciously aiming their efforts directly at the fan market as their chief area of growth’” (261).
I’m not going to get into the nature of that fact right now, how it basically creates an industry not unlike the snake eating its own tail. That’s a subject for another column entirely, one I will come back to next week. But that quote above does fly in the face of everything this column is about. It shows that the publishers are creating an industry that feeds off of fans that already exist, bleeding them dry, rather than making MORE comic fans, which is what I’m trying to show you how to do here.
But we fans also do a number of things that cut us off from other fans entering into the fold. We engage in myriad practices that separate us from others and make us pariahs; we often force ourselves into the role of social outcast, painting ourselves into a corner and then blaming the larger majority for what we have done.
A few weeks ago in my column on X2, I mentioned one such example of how that happens. Simply put, our place as pariahs is in part based on the stereotype that seems to permeate the mass media’s portrayal of people who read comics, that of the “fanboy.” This stereotype is everywhere. Just the other night Conan O’Brien was discussing Trekkies with Jeri Ryan, and they got into a brief discussion on overzealous fans. There was also a recent ad for deodorant that played ever so briefly on this stereotype, stating that this deodorant would make men more attractive to women no matter what hardships they were saddled with in their relations with the opposite sex, one such hardship being a large comic book collection.
But it’s not all the media’s fault. When we ourselves think of the “typical comic book fan,” we tend to think of the guys from Eltingville or the Simpsons comic book store owner: obsessive, undersexed, unwashed, holier-than-thou. And we have these pictures not because the media has forced them onto us. We KNOW these people; we have met them and know they exist for real.
Now, many of us laugh when we see such portrayals as these because we recognize small pieces of ourselves or people we know in them. But some of us cringe when we see such stereotypes in the media, because we know that they, the uneducated masses, are laughing at us. As Matthew J. Pustz states in his book Comic Book Culture, “for some, then, being a comic book fan is source for pain, perhaps because it has become an important part of many fans’ identity and they know how American society tends to look down on the medium and its readers” (70). The “fanboy” image marginalizes us as a culture, makes us look foolish in the eyes of outsiders. But more importantly, it scares them away from ever wanting to be like us. They don’t want to try comics because they fear the fans.
To combat that image, the term “fanboy” itself is one that people have started appropriating. They’re trying to modify its meaning, just as a minority group would with a epithet, so that its harmful connotations no longer exist. These fans try to show pride in their comic book roots by using the term to refer to themselves. But the term is not something to be proud of; its use perpetuates the stereotype. Again, the popular image of the comic fan is based in truth, and simply using the word reminds people of that image in some small way.
So should we remove this word from our lexicon? No, not yet at least. I think we should stop using it with pride, yes, but there are still plenty of negative behaviors we as a culture engage in that the word applies to. Before we can remove the power of the word, before this word can be ejected from our vocabulary, we must obliterate this type of behavior. As Pustz again states, “the term fanboy is demeaning when it is applied broadly to all comic book readers or even only to all readers of mainstream comics. But it is possible that some readers fit the stereotype” (Pustz 79). The real problem then is changing our behavior so the connotation that comes with the word “fanboy” is no longer true.
In other words, we need to do our best to be less elitist and exclusionary. Much of the stereotype of the “fanboy” is based on the superior tone used by those who embody it. We need to welcome new readers, not look down our noses at them and call them “newbies.” We must recognize that there is a time and a place for “fanboy” behavior. If you’re going to a comic book convention, then you can go ahead and “geek out,” dress in costume and argue ceaselessly about the minute details of comic continuity. But in the real world, this behavior needs to be laid aside. Yes I am preaching conformity. If we want comics to survive, we must do all we can to make them accepted by the broader community. Basically then, we have to act in a manner that makes us look acceptable and inviting to others. In essence, we’ve gotta play it cool.
How do we do those things? How do we modify our behavior? Well, that’s a question I’ll be exploring next week in my look at what sometimes is a breeding ground for “fanboys” and thus can be an uninviting place for new readers, your local comic shop.
Pustz, Matthew J. Comic Book Culture: Fanboys and True Believers. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1999.
Wright, Bradford W. Comic Book Nation: The Transformation of Youth Culture in
America. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001.