The super politics of comic book fandom

Matthew J. Costello

Saint Xavier University, Chicago, Illinois, United States

[0.1] Abstract—Editorial for "Appropriating, Interpreting, and Transforming Comic Books," edited by Matthew Costello, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 13 (2013).

Costello, Matthew J. 2013. "The Super Politics of Comic Book Fandom." In "Appropriating, Interpreting, and Transforming Comic Books," edited by Matthew J. Costello, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 13. http://dx.doi.org/10.3983/twc.2013.0528.

1. Comic book fandom evolves and transforms

[1.1] Transformation is a political act. Whether it is slash fiction's challenge to heteronormativity, cosplay at political rallies, or editorials that question the white male privilege of fandom, whenever fans appropriate cultural artifacts they transform them for rhetorical purposes. Fandom thus becomes the battleground through which cultural meaning is constructed and as such is always contested terrain.

[1.2] The political element to fannish transformation is particularly apparent in the world of comic book fandom. For 75 years comic books have been major art form in popular culture, and since 1938 the superhero has been the major genre of comic books. Superheroes have had such longevity and such mass appeal that they have appeared in nearly every medium of popular culture and become embedded in the cultural psyche. American superheroes have always had a distinctly political element to them—consider Captain America's famous first appearance punching Hitler, or the Adventures of Superman radio show, which transformed him into a defender of "truth, justice, and the American way." The late former Alaskan senator Ted Stevens would gear up for contentious battles on the Senate floor by donning an Incredible Hulk tie, a not-so-veiled threat of the consequences of making him angry. "The Inquiry," a 2011 Superman story in the Action Comics 900th anniversary issue, in which the hero renounces his US citizenship in favor of serving all humanity rather than one nation, generated over 600 commentaries on the conservative message boards of The Blaze and over 3,000 at the site of the more centrist Huffington Post. For both dedicated fans and casual consumers, comic books and their characters provide one battlefield in the fight to define cultural meanings.

[1.3] This issue of TWC explores 21st-century comic book fandom and the way it is transforming not only the characters, but also the industry and the art form. The essays that comprise this issue reveal a moment of change, with new voices meeting carriers of tradition and advocates of democratization meeting industrial inertia. Fans still engage in traditional fan practices of indexing, collecting, and forming reading communities, but as they do so, they appropriate and transform the characters, the encounter between the comics art form and diverse genres, and the very comics industry itself. These transformations continue in the traditional form of fans becoming creators, but they take on a specifically political hue. Fans and professionals vie to define the meaning of characters by placing them in new situations; newly visible groups within fandom assert their presence and interests against an industry that continues to define its audience as exclusively white and male. Fans of comic art are also pushing the boundaries between comics and other narrative forms, transforming narrative itself.

2. The politics of Captain America

[2.1] Captain America is a symbol of nationalism, one that has been frequently deployed to construct a rhetoric of national power (Dittmer 2013). In the 1940s he defended America against Nazis, and in the 1950s was reformulated as a "commie smasher." Since the 1970s, though, the character has consciously been written to be less a symbol of specific policy or party than a bearer of more general putatively American ideals. This led the character of Steve Rogers to quit being Captain America on two occasions in the 1970s and 1980s. As Forrest Phillips notes in this issue, this characterization of Captain America has created an icon available for appropriation by both sides of the political spectrum. Examining the use of Captain America iconography particularly through cosplay by the Tea Party and Occupy movements, Phillips explores how and why this character in particular is used by both ends of the political spectrum. He notes, however, the danger posed to meaningful political discourse by adopting an icon of Americanness as representative of one political position. Defining one's political position as identical with American ideals "turns Americans who disagree with them into an Other" (¶4.3), intensifying a language of polarization and exclusion.

[2.2] From a different perspective, Babak Zarin explores how fan fiction deploying Captain America can be used to recast issues and develop political advocacy. In the 1960s and 1970s and in recent filmic incarnations, Captain America was frequently presented as a man out of time, possessing 1930s values in a late 20th-century world. The value conflict within the character is used by slash writer hetrez to develop a critical encounter with contemporary social policy. Zarin reads hetrez's piece of fan fiction "Average Avengers Local Chapter 7 of New York" as a how-to manual for developing issue advocacy movements, focusing specifically on unions and gay rights.

3. From fan to professional: Defending and deconstructing the superhero

[3.1] Fan movement into the professional ranks has often altered the politics of the characters. Roy Thomas used his love of the 1940s heroes to challenge the politics of the 1970s as writer of The Invaders and The Justice Society of America. Frank Miller, Alan Moore, and Grant Morrison, among others, used their fannish knowledge to deconstruct superheroes, problematizing the notion of superheroes as inner-directed champions of justice. Others, such as James Robinson and Kurt Busiek, have tried to reinvigorate the superhero tradition that they loved as fans. The interview with comics artist Lee Weeks that appears in this issue reveals a common path from fan to professional. From childhood fan, he moved into the reading community that developed around his local comic shop, attended conventions and cartooning school, and entered the professional ranks as an artist in the late 1980s, making a name for himself through his work on Daredevil, Batman, and Hawkman, among other iconic superhero characters. Today he defines interactions with fans via Facebook and at conventions as his major connections to the industry. Weeks sees himself as carrying on the tradition of the comics he read as a child, following in the footsteps of artists such as John Buscema and Gene Colan. Disturbed by the moral ambiguity that has characterized much of the superhero genre for the past two decades, he sees defending the tradition in his interactions with fans as a moral calling.

[3.2] While Lee sees his role as being faithful to a tradition that he seeks to maintain, Garth Ennis is revealed to be more subversive, deconstructing and transforming the superheroes he grew up admiring. As Amanda Odom discusses in her essay on The Pro, Ennis as both fan and creator brings to his work a critical style that foregrounds relations of gender and power, a consistent element of his work from Preacher and The Pro to more recent work such as The Boys and Fury. This is not, as Odom argues, a rejection of superheroes, but an attempt to engage them critically: the fan's "high degree of acceptance [of the superhero] necessitates a stark provocation to move us to treat both superheroes and our relation to them critically" (¶9). By carrying on the tradition or problematizing it, both Weeks and Ennis take a critical stance on that tradition and transform it.

4. Industrial transformation

[4.1] New opportunities for fans to express and reveal themselves have also begun a major change in the industry, but one that has required a fight. Long considered an almost exclusively white male domain, superhero comics had developed in blissful oblivion concerning gender issues. Occasional attempts to address a female market by largely middle-aged white male creators were generally condescending (the ladies only like the romance stuff) and often embarrassing (see, for instance, the Femme Force, created in Captain America and the Falcon 144–47, or the earliest incarnations of Valkyrie and the Savage She Hulk). Attempts to relate to an African American audience resulted in the creation of heroes of color, all of whom had to be identified by their color—Black Panther, Black Goliath, Black Lightning.

[4.2] In the 1990s, some things began to change. Milestone Comics became the first African American–owned and operated comic book company, and it created several African American heroes that became solid commercial properties (Icon and Static Shock). Still, this was a short-lived success that collapsed along with the rest of the comic book market in the 1990s (for a history of Milestone, see Brown 2000). Heroes of color who do not have to identify themselves by skin color have gained some ground, but not much. DC Comics has a teenage Hispanic from El Paso wielding the scarab of the Blue Beetle, and Marvel has created a new multicultural Spider-Man. Ora C. McWilliams recounts the role of fandom in bringing about this change but also notes some disturbing elements of backlash within the fan community.

[4.3] Women still had little representation, even though they were becoming increasingly visible as fans. Gail Simone's 1999 posting "Women in Refrigerators" raised awareness of the misogyny of superhero comics and the increasingly visible female fan base. This fan base has grown extensively as comics have migrated to film and television over the last 15 years. Whether this greater visibility has generated significant change remains a matter of debate. As Suzanne Scott argues, women are becoming more visible within comic book fandom, despite the major producers' attempts to ignore them. This visibility is an important step toward increasing gender equality, a condition where women will be equally visible to men, and thus gender will be invisible. Rebecca Lucy Busker seeks the same goal, where gender is not an issue, but she sees little change in the male privilege that dominates comic book fandom.

[4.4] The growing visibility of female fans seems generated in part by the migration of comics out of the specialty shop and into the theaters and mainstream bookstores. At FanFiction.net (http://www.fanfiction.net), for instance, movie-based fiction outnumbers comics-based fiction almost three to one, and while women are more likely to write fan fiction than men, they seem even more likely to do so for film. This does not mean that women are not fans of comics but that their presence in specifically comic book fandom has been largely invisible (as Scott argues), but it is increasingly less so. The greater visibility of women has generated several battle fronts, from Simone's posting to the Batgirl of San Francisco's protest against the decline of female creators in DC Comics' "New 52." My So-Called Secret Identity, a project instigated by Will Brooker to create a better Batgirl, discussed in an interview in this issue with Kate Roddy, Carlen Lavigne, and Suzanne Scott, is another battleground for gender awareness in comics, as is the publication of the Kickstarter-funded Womanthology. All of these battles not only transform characters, but push toward a transformation of the industry.

[4.5] Fourteen years after "Women in Refrigerators," these battles do seem to be having some effect on the industry. Gender parity is a long way away, but there have been new inroads for female creators at the mainstream houses (although DC Comics seems to be doing a bit better than Marvel in numbers and visibility). The number of female title characters has grown—although again, parity is far off. While I would like to think we have come farther than we have, the current issue of Supergirl comics (#20) features a cover that loosely echoes the Pieta, with Powergirl as the Madonna, her "boob window" centered on the page. In the latest issue of Batman: The Dark Knight (#20), the hero's current love interest finds herself tossed out of a helicopter, crashing (somehow) into the Batsignal atop police headquarters. And although more women are creating comics, frequently they are still, to use Scott's metaphor, getting "fridged."

5. Transformational opportunities of the comics art form

[5.1] Melding image and text, comics engage readers on both a textual and visual level; the ways text and image interact open up new possibilities of meaning and create unique opportunities for fan engagement and transformations. The construction of the comics page, separated into panels that capture and freeze a discrete moment of time, fractures time and space. By the very act of engaging the comics page, the reader creates the action that occurs in the gutter—the space between the panels. The presentation of the medium—fracturing time and space and combining image and text—forces the reader to become a transformative participant through the very act of engaging with it at all.

[5.2] Several of the essays in this issue explore the unique opportunities for fans to become transformative participants in creating meaning from (and transforming the meaning of) comics. Catherine Coker's essay on slash fiction treating Captain America and Iron Man sets this fan fiction community in a unique position because the source material are comics. She examines how fan fiction is an attempt to create continuity between comic panels "by piecing together those elements visually present in the text with those that are clearly not" (¶1.6). She goes further, exploring the manifold transformative opportunities generated by the multiple alternative universes that have arisen over decades of Avengers continuity and transitions across media. This opportunity to create meaning, rendered possible by the spaces between panels and the multiple contexts of the AUs, allows fan fiction writers to give new meaning to the Steve/Tony relationship and to subvert the heteronormative narrative world of superhero comics, rendering the fans "subaltern and subversive practitioners" (¶1.2).

[5.3] Lyndsay Brown similarly identifies the fractioning of time and space through the comics panel as a central element creating unique opportunities for transformation, particularly as fans suture the panels together. She goes further, exploring how text and image can work together to develop new forms of narrative. Her examination of both professional and fan pornographic comics explores how those elements peculiar to the comics art from can be used not only to create new meanings, but also to create new functions for the narrative.

[5.4] The interaction of image and text is also central to transformational reading communities. Kayley Thomas examines fan reactions to the filmic Loki, the villain of The Avengers movie. She explores how fans use GIFs from the film amended by images from comic books, bringing two different fandoms together, to develop a sophisticated encounter with a character who is clearly a villain in the film—charming and attractive, certainly, but a villain nonetheless—and a character cast as part villain and part victim in the comics. Bringing together these two media enables an intertextual and transformative encounter with Loki. Such intertextuality, Thomas argues, can create new meanings and "can break down...hierarchies [in the fan community] by exhibiting engagement with multiple sources and providing coherent meaning for other viewers" (¶2.3).

[5.5] Democratization of fandom is also a central element of Tim Bavlnka's analysis of the Hypercrisis thread on 4chan (http://4chan.org). This thread, essentially a reading community for the works of comics writer Grant Morrison, attempts to place all of Morrison's writings into a coherent single narrative, deploying images drawn from a variety of his texts, his own personal writings and interviews, and the texts he has produced. Because of the anonymity of 4chan postings, Bavlnka argues, the hierarchies in comics fandom disappear, rendering the /co/mrades of the Hypercrisis a democratic fan community engaged in "participative thinking" (¶1.8).

6. Conclusion

[6.1] Comic book fandom is one of the oldest groups of organized fans, with a history that goes back at least to the early 1960s (Pustz 1999; Schelly 2010). Twenty-first-century fandom is more diverse by gender and color than has been previously considered, but we still engage the iconic characters and stories of comics as bearers of moral meaning, exciting narratives, and deep emotional commitment. We still form reading communities and aspire to become writers and creators. The Internet provides easier access, greater visibility, and new venues and more opportunities to participate in fandom without getting our fingers stained with mimeograph fluid. Films generate a new body of fans. These changes create opportunities and challenges to fandom, the industry, and the narratives. This issue of TWC reflects this moment of change and reveals that at its core, transformation is a political act.

7. Acknowledgments

[7.1] The following people worked on TWC No. 13 in an editorial capacity: Matthew J. Costello (guest editor); Kristina Busse and Karen Hellekson (editors); Cameron Salisbury (Symposium); and Louisa Stein (Review).

[7.2] The following people worked on TWC No. 13 in a production capacity: Rrain Prior (production editor); Beth Friedman, Shoshanna Green, and Christine Mains (copyeditors); Wendy M. Carr, Kristen Murphy, and sunusn (layout); and Carmen Montopoli (proofreader).

[7.3] TWC thanks the journal project's Organization for Transformative Works board liaison, Andrea Horbinski. OTW provides financial support and server space to TWC but is not involved in any way in the content of the journal, which is editorially independent.

[7.4] TWC thanks all its board members, whose names appear on TWC's masthead, as well as the additional peer reviewers and Symposium reviewers who provided service for TWC No. 13: Stephanie Betz, Conseula Francis, Sharon Goetz, Sarah Rasher, Marc Singer, Kayley Thomas, and Jeff Watson.

8. Works cited

Brown, Jeffrey. 2000. Black Superheroes, Milestone Comics, and Their Fans. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press.

Dittmer, Jason. 2013. Captain America and the Nationalist Superhero: Metaphors, Narratives, and Geopolitics. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Goyer, David (writer), and Miguel Sepulveda (artist). 2011. "The Incident." Action Comics #900. New York: DC Comics.

Pustz, Matthew J. 1999. Comic Book Culture: Fanboys and True Believers. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press.

Schelly, William. 2010. Founders of Comic Fandom. Jefferson, NC: McFarland.

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