Tuesday, September 29, 2009

In Defense of Fanboys

Fanboy. It's the dirtiest word in comics. Spend a little time on any comic book forum or website and you're bound to see it sooner or later, hurled as a dismissive insult by those who see themselves as above the fray. "Dude, you're taking things too seriously", these missives usually start, "stop being such a fanboy." The implications and definitions are clear: fanboys are deluded nerds who spend their time debating whether Superman could lift Thor's hammer, while the enlightened comic cognoscenti are worried about loftier ideals such as structure, tone, characterization. You know, the art form. In other words, stuff that faboys wouldn't understand.

Well, I'm here to say that not only should fanboys be respected, they should be both nurtured and courted. Because there's nothing as important to the future of comics as the fanboy.

In order to understand why the fanboy is so important to the future, though, we first need to understand how fanboys were regarded in the past. How did we get here? Once upon a time, strange is it may be to consider now, the fanboy stood at the pinnacle of the comic industry. Perhaps no fanboy has been as renowned or influential as Roy Thomas, who was emblematic of a whole movement of fanboys: the second generation of comic creators, those who grew up reading comics and wanting to write and draw comics from childhood. Thomas, in fact, got his start in comics thanks to being a fanboy; his work on the underground fanzine Alter-Ego became a focal point for the comic community and led to his eventual career at Marvel. Fanboys had taken over the industry.

And then something happened -- something called Watchmen. With a more cynical era came a more cynical view of comics; they were deconstructed and dismantled and while it led to some amazing and mature stories, it also led to some disillusionment for fans. It was no longer cool to just have fun reading superhero comics, because the emperor had no clothes. And this feeling -- that the hobby had been revealed as being, well, juvenile -- was only exacerbated by the exploitation of the fanbase by comic companies in the mid-90's that nearly led the to collapse of the entire industry. Gimmicks, holograms, variants and the speculation bubble was pushed along with shoddy art and half-assed storytelling in an attempt to turn a quick buck and the result was the mass exodus of fans who had been hit with this one-two-punch. The fanboy was gone and so was the money and the sales figures.

Which brings us to today and to a whole new generation of creators who have followed in the footsteps of Roy Thomas. Only, this new generation are the readers who grew up with Watchmen and lived through the deconstruction. Like scarred survivors of some pulp art holocaust, today's band of new fans and new creators live with a post-modern kind of post traumatic stress disorder. Everyone's versed in every aspect of the medium and the genre; they've read Understanding Comics and The Dark Knight Returns and the eat up Warren Ellis' blog posts and creator and reader alike foster a sort of hipster detachment. Characters and genre conventions are just pieces to be pushed around the game board, because we all know the rules now. We're in on the joke, and anyone who isn't in on the joke is the joke; we're smarter and cooler than they are because we care about the craft, we don't let ourselves get emotionally invested in kiddie stuff and they do.

In other words: they're just fanboys.

The mistake in this line of thinking is that it refuses to consider the idea that someone who has an emotional investment in a work can also apply critical thinking to it. You're either a fan or you're a critic, this line of reasoning states, and you can't be both at once. Well, that's just wrong. People who are fans of a series or character or story can also apply critical thinking to it. Being a good story and being an enjoyable story aren't necessarily the same thing. There are plenty of comics that I enjoy for personal reasons that I think objectively aren't good; and on the flip side, there are plenty of powerful, well made comics that I don't actually like. The idea that being a fan of a comic prevents you from applying objective criticism to it is patently absurd. Being a fan -- understanding how and why a character or a series has been successful in the past -- doesn't lead a reader to being less critical in their approach to reading comics, but rather to being more critical. Indeed, when Alter-Ego came out back in the 60's it wasn't remarkable because it about comics, but because it treated comics seriously and applied critical thinking to reviewing them. The wave of fanboys that became creators in the late 60's and early 70's were brought in by the big companies precisely because they had been doing this sort of critical thinking on the genre and the form. In other words, fanboys and objective criticism weren't mutually exclusive, because the fanboys were the critics.

Even if none of this were true, however, fanboys would be deserving of respect anyone for a simple reason: we need them. Comics need them. Comic book creators need them. Comic book publishers need them. Since the comic first debuted, fanboys have been the lifeblood of the business. The bond that forms between a fan and the characters and series that they love is one of the main things that keeps bringing people back, keeps filling stores and shows and keeps sales up to the point where the publishers can keep putting out new stories. It's a beautiful thing, really, this fandom. In a media savvy world, where everyone is aware of all the behind the scenes tricks, the fact that a reader can still allow themselves to be emotionally invested in the lives of a bunch of drawings is magic. Maybe that magic is gone for you and for me, but for those who still allow themselves this suspension of disbelief -- this willful innocence -- it's wonderful thing that we should praise, not mock. Because when the fanboy disappears, comics will disappear with them.

So think about this next time you call someone a fanboy, or the next time someone calls you a fanboy. And when they tell you that you're taking these comics too seriously, answer this: you can take yourself too seriously, but you can never be too serious about your comics.

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I think you're taking a lot of different variations here and generalizingly meshing them together to try form one body. I don't think it's working.

I don't think I follow what you mean, Brian.

I think you were making a generalization that everyone who is a frothing-at-the-mouth fan is normal, and that would be a wrong assumption.