Popular culture, and its audiences, are studied in many fields. Fan studies is just one field concerned with this, drawing from television studies, game studies, literary studies. Boundary work is common in academia, and media studies is similar. Why is there, for instance, so little discussion between scholars of fandom and comics? This was the central question in the workshop Comics/Fandom – a collaboration between the AG Comicforschung (comic studies) and the AG Partizipations- und Fanforschung (participatory culture and fan studies) at the German Society for Media Studies (GfM). I was really drawn to the CfP, which states:
Considering how crucially comic book marketing depends on loyal customers, especially fans, and to how great an extent the ever-expanding franchises surrounding Marvel’s or DC’s comic worlds rely on user participation and fandom, it seems striking that the connection between Comics Studies and Fan Studies has hardly been explored in any great detail so far.
Here’s my slides:
1. Technology and Production
Fandom is increasingly political and in the hands of big businesses. It is more important than ever that we adopt a critical stance in our fields. Money matters in fandom. Much of this power is now in the hands of platforms (e.g. Facebook, Google, Tumblr). Such platforms are not neutral tools but ecosystems and business models that effect the user-generated content and communication of fans.
Ko-fi and Patreon are two important crowdfunding platforms that fan artists often use to sell their designs. Svenja Kaiser told us more about how artists operate on these platforms. They were fantrepeneurs (as I blogged about earlier), selling and reselling existing content. Kaiser’s deep qualitative analysis showed how fan artists framed themselves on different media, and even appropriated unlikely media such as Tumblr into web shops.
The fans that Kaiser studied framed themselves as artists with clear guidelines on ownership and circulation of their art and commissions. This might be contrasted to the doujinshi artists at Comiket, as studied by Katharina Hulsmann. She focused on foreign language fandoms in Japan, such as Marvel, and how fans spread their art. Online, their adult art is often password protected and riddled with puzzles to keep non-fans out. In general, the face-to-face culture of doujinshi works as a control mechanism.
The problem of voice is an important one, in official comic production but also in fandom. Matt Hills revealed in his keynote, among others, that fans often adopt neoliberal language to give weight to their opinion and voice. By using terms from the creative industries, like IP, they add an air of expertise.
Let’s go meta a bit and wonder: Who is depicting who? Who is doing the talking? Production in comic book fandom is heavily gendered. While many fan artists may be female, and live of their craft, the history of comic book fandom is a gendered one. Sydney Heifler’s historical study of romance comics focused on different cases drawn by men and women. Romance comics give a female voice to the masculine history of comics and its first wave included many female authors. In the 1960s though, romance comics were quickly rendered effeminate, sub-standard, and an alternative source of work before artists started to do “proper superhero comics”.
Voice is by no means only related to text or spoken word, but also highly visual and material. The ways in which superheroes are dressed, and who does the dressing, also conveys of the voice. Monica Geraffo for instance revealed that the fashion in X-Men (both streetwear and costumes) adheres to gendered logics and has a rich intertextuality.
Still, comics can be a way of communicating for marginalized groups. Today, production of comics can still be low-key and barely involve commercialization, as Shromona Das revealed in her case-study of grassroots comics in India. Comics can be a powerful way to tell and draw a narrative when you are not heard in society. Frederik Gooding discussed the cross-overs between comics and hiphop, and it was not without reason that both drew from each other’s iconography often. Comics empower. We need superheroes.
Affect is sold and marketed continuously in comics. Nostalgia is a production strategy in comics. Franchises are rebooted and restarted continuously to please audiences. Characters in comics are familiar faces that don’t age, unlike actors. Giorgio Busi Rizzi unpacks the different types of nostalgia in comics from a more object-oriented nostalgia (more of the same) to a free-floating nostalgia towards certain times and moments. Nostalgia is always selective. We remember parts of a story rather than the whole. It’s difficult to pin down what audiences love and don’t love. There’s always a friction between maturing a text and updating it versus the history of the text.
Today, it’s even more important to view the flip side of affect – the negative and toxic. Comicsgate as studied by Vanessa Ossa is a good example of this. Nostalgia can result in negative emotions. Fans feel that a text may not be authentic anymore, that it excludes them, that it’s not for them. They want more of the same and the mainstream is considered too progressive.
Overall, the cultural and affective ownership that fans feel is important and very prominent in comic book fandom. The exchange between readers and creators seemed very strong, compared to for instance television fandom. I hope that we can focus more on the cross-overs between our fields and will keep you updated!