Book review

Cult collectors: Nostalgia, fandom and collecting popular culture, by Lincoln Geraghty

Michael S. Duffy

Towson University, Baltimore, Maryland, United States

[0.1] Keywords—Comic-Con; Fan made; Memory; Star Wars; Transformers

Duffy, Michael S. 2014. Cult Collectors: Nostalgia, Fandom, and Collecting Popular Culture, by Lincoln Geraghty [book review]. In "Material Fan Culture," edited by Bob Rehak, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 16. http://dx.doi.org/10.3983/twc.2014.0584.

Lincoln Geraghty, Cult collectors: Nostalgia, fandom and collecting popular culture. New York: Routledge, 2014. $39.95 (224p) ISBN 978–0-415-61766-6.

[1] In the contemporary marketplace of popular film and media, with its strong reliance on adaptations of comic book superheroes, best-selling young adult novels, and decades-old television shows, collecting becomes something of a complex, hybridized connection between fan consciousness, nostalgia, and the life extension of contemporary studio– and producer-driven media. Lincoln Geraghty's Cult Collectors is a much-needed coalescing of what have often been competing academic notions of media industries, cult fandom, comic book histories, and toy collecting studies.

[2] The book is a well-organized and engaging journey through four broader sections of discussion, each containing two chapters, one driven by theory and the other providing specific analysis. Images are plentiful, but they are primarily provided in later chapters to illustrate examples of "Spaces" and "Places" in the discussion. In "Stereotypes," Geraghty explores popular media portrayals of fans and cult collectors in popular shows as The Big Bang Theory(2007-present), and in chapter 2 of this section, he explores the ongoing fascination with collecting Hollywood memorabilia, analyzing what it says to us as a culture about memories, nostalgia for fantasy worlds, and ourselves. The second section, "People," discusses the implications that gender associations in fandom have on our perceptions of collecting cultures; the author suggests that through expansions of online communities of collecting, such perceived distinctions become less important than the notions that bind these fans and collectors together. Geraghty then examines the "rebirth and repackaging" of the Transformers franchise through toys, animated series, and contemporary live-action films (6).

[3] In "Places," the author explores convention spaces used for meet-and-greet opportunities with casts and creators of cult and popular media, as well as (with more specific implications for Geraghty's argument) the commandeering of these spaces for an increasingly elaborate marketplace of buying and selling merchandise that helps bind fans' personal memories of the source material to physical representations of it. Chapter 6 looks at the collecting phenomenon surrounding Star Wars–related merchandise; Geraghty claims that the cultural significance of both the franchise and the collecting of objects related to it imply that our ideas of preservation and cultural memory have shifted in significant ways. In the final section, "Spaces," Geraghty explores how the success of events like Comic-Con and the emergence of Internet marketplaces have affected the activity of collecting for fans in personal, physical, and archival ways. The final chapter, "Cult Collectors," explores the multiplatform resurgence of the Lego system and its "transformation from educational children's toy to transmedia adult collectible" (9). In this analysis, Geraghty argues that the past is, like the innumerable building blocks that form the foundation of the toy line, once again made present through the convergence of personal memory and our intricately constructed, ever-changing digital culture.

[4] The greatest issue being questioned is implied in the title itself, Cult Collectors. If, as Geraghty explains in his introduction (via the words of writer/comedian Patton Oswalt), "nothing remains unpopular" in our still-new socially mediated culture, where "old media texts are remediated" (13) through Web sites like YouTube and eBay, as well as viral campaigns and multiplatform storytelling, then what is really cult about the collecting of any collectible object anymore? Indeed, in an age where The Big Bang Theory, which both lionizes and problematizes geek culture, is one of the most popular shows on television, and formerly niche projects such as the Star Trek and Transformers franchises are given new life through ever more expensive feature film revivals, the tension displayed in the portrayals of so-called geeks and their proclivities becomes a center-stage narrative for media reporting, reverberating throughout multiple discussion pathways. Yet, as Geraghty notes, the continually privileged portrayal and discussion of geeks as something special (and therefore other) in mass-marketed storytelling contains an inherent bias that reveals a still-problematic notion of fandom. It makes one question how shows like The Big Bang Theory can be contentious in their seemingly innocuous popularity.

[5] "We are all fans of something," Geraghty argues (15); "the collecting of popular culture has never been so popular" (2). Is it now cool to be seen as a fan, or is it merely revisiting past notions of nerds? Does it contain the same cultural bias and defined otherness, but placed in a more palatable mainstream packaging? Reaching into contemporary depictions of geek-associated culture on film, Geraghty explores films like Galaxy Quest (1999) and Fanboys (2009) and how they seem concerned with communicating "a sense of what it means to be a fan" (28), though their overall plots are of course slyly constructed to represent fanboy/girl fantasies of integrating real and fictional worlds. For Geraghty, a film like The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005) takes a nuanced approach to the reality of collecting cult objects, using its narrative to demonstrate the "fan experience of building, keeping and living with a collection" (29).

[6] Geraghty's book is primarily concerned with the increasingly complex links between fandom, memory, and nostalgia, and his work here draws on an admirable amount of other authors' investigations into these specialized fields. He successfully fuses discussions of past, present, and possible futures of media and memory to demonstrate just how meaningful and malleable collecting remains for us. "Nostalgia and memory are bound up in the creation of a contemporary fan identity," Geraghty notes (3), and quoting Jean Baudrillard from The System of Objects, he maintains that all collecting is personal: "what you really collect is always yourself" (4). Especially in our contemporary socially connected culture, collecting can also signify being "part of a larger community that shares in the same affective relationship" (35) while articulating our own particular fandoms—and thus identities—individually. Our culture of fandom now celebrates the public history of franchises and storytelling while revealing personal histories that are inherently tied to these cultures, and Geraghty's book helps deconstruct the images we as a culture have of fans and fan culture.

[7] Cult Collectors arrives at just the right time to explore how the roles of fans and the nature of memorialized objects are shifting thanks to the expansion of the Internet; the World Wide Web has allowed collectors of previously obscure material to become more sophisticated both in their knowledge of media and object histories and in their ability to discuss and reobtain precious items of—or representing—their youth. For Geraghty, the Web, and our access to it, has made "history more accessible, our memories more tangible, thus bringing the past into the present" (2). Now, with the Internet, "collecting enables fans to connect with the histories of their favorite media texts in ways they just could not achieve twenty or thirty years ago" (2).

[8] Geraghty argues that the prevalence of and access to digital technologies in our daily lives has not only reminded us of how digital culture is in certain ways replacing older forms of entertainment but also has encouraged fans/collectors to further privilege material objects, as they remain "solid signifiers of the historical significance of previous media texts" (2). He notes that previous work on toys and collecting "suggest[s] that the histories of popular culture are being constantly rewritten, re-evaluated, and there is an audience out there that wants to engage with and relive that history in some form or another" (3).

[9] The book also provides a blueprint for exploring a seemingly more accepted movement in contemporary media-making culture depicting fans as developing from childhood dreamers to consumers to creators of fan-worthy material. Writer, producer, and director J. J. Abrams is a great example; he has never been shy about his fandom for the Star Wars films and franchise. This of course was partially generated by his family friendship with George Lucas, and this circular personal-professional cycle of growth and regeneration of fandom into work has truly come full circle, with Abrams committed to cowriting and directing a new Star Wars film set for release in 2015.

[10] In Cult Collectors, there is due attention to gender and representation in fandom. Although Geraghty notes that, for example, "women are increasingly more vocal" in their attention to text and fandom within historically male-dominated environments (55), one wonders whether it is really about their competition with boys and men who are reasserting rights and values perceived as inherently given, or simply an acknowledgment of their own inner geek, an aspiration to play within the sandbox of nerd or comic book culture and indulge (as men do) in both stereotyped and sometimes accurate descriptions of gendered portrayals. Geraghty rightly wonders whether we lose significant value and meaning of fan culture when we focus too much on gender distinctions.

[11] Overall, Geraghty forms a compelling argument that collecting in and of itself contributes significantly to fan identity, and that television shows such as Hollywood Treasure, which focuses on locating and ascribing value to authentic props and memorabilia, help collectors recontextualize Hollywood history by reevaluating (and revaluing) Hollywood artifacts. In the new millennium, collecting authentic props from fan-favorite productions seems to be a direct display of ownership and authenticity in terms of cinematic/cultural history, as we don't really own home video or digital versions of films or television; we own copies. Geraghty also raises enormously important questions surrounding contemporary access to archival studio materials through the Internet and hubs like YouTube; in the time spent reposting, uploading, and rearchiving, what are we ignoring about our current generation's development in culture, place, and history?

[12] There is an engaging discussion about geographical sites for fandom such as the San Diego Comic-Con, more popular than ever despite the rise of Internet fan culture. In chapter 7, Geraghty explores how the heterotopic space has expanded through the past few decades to feature major film studios promoting their upcoming franchises. Comic-Con has grown beyond fan interaction. Geraghty alludes to Henry Jenkins's argument that the annual event has transformed into a place that privileges fans as consumers rather than cultural producers. Its primary function now seems focused on the buying and selling of goods, generating a cross-parallel and cross-pollinating fandom encouraging attendees to celebrate their inner geek among thousands of like-minded individuals. This increasingly interactive space has benefits for both fans and license holders. Long-standing groups like Mattel engage in direct conversation with fans about cult interests like Masters of the Universe through Comic-Con and Web sites where fans can vote on and order custom and limited-edition figures and play sets that tie both consumer and license owner into a more direct creative-business relationship that benefits both. There is also a valuable section on the Lego history and phenomenon that provides a perfect primer for how the Lego brand has sustained and renewed itself, tapping into collector markets, offering fans exclusives, and signing agreements with major studios and content holders to develop sets and feature films based on licensed characters and universes such as Indiana Jones and DC Comics superheroes.

[13] For this reviewer, Geraghty's most compelling riffs concentrate on how specific fandoms help generate and construct modes of behavior for individuals. Collecting and interactive fandom increasingly help consumers develop and maintain an "endlessly-deferred narrative" (176) about the universe they're playing in, yet also allow them to maintain a "transformative nostalgia" for their own personal connection to beloved characters and worlds (178). No greater example of this phenomenon can be made than Star Wars and its multibillion-dollar merchandizing history, which demonstrates the cultural significance of international fandom. Graphically and textually rich books have been published illustrating the innumerable details—and thus collectability—of Star Wars–related toys and merchandise, and fans continue to consume spin-off novels, unauthorized fan-made films, and Lucasfilm-sanctioned conventions where fans can meet individuals who have worked in the enormous—and seemingly unending—universe.

[14] Within this discussion of Star Wars collectibles as "paratexts" (122), Geraghty compellingly argues that collectors are using licensed corporate products to assert and recreate their own identities. He also describes how intricately and delicately fans can individually and collectively transform the nature of a museum (and what should be preserved there) by constructing their own, either within their houses or with the help of others for larger public venues. The point is clear: even if the museums, displays, and conventions are temporary, fandom and collecting is forever.

[15] Cult Collectors demonstrates the power of, and problems behind, collecting and fandom. It leaves us with critical questions surrounding the future of our cultural histories. What does this consistent return to our pop cultural pasts indicate about our contemporary humanity? Is nostalgia for media and cultural products now a functional mode instead of a memorial? In an age where Hollywood increasingly draws on preexisting brand knowledge and history, the personal connections that we retain to representative objects of these cultural phenomena deserve much more analysis.



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