August 21, 2003

The Comics Journal Hair-Trigger, Or Why Johnny Blogger Ought To Have His Own Comments Section

So I got off a couple of little zingers about science fiction conventions while trying to describe why I don’t think my own fannish interests in science fiction, comic books, computer games or anything similar are at all like two young women hanging around a hotel evidently seeking (and apparently failing) to get laid by some Austrialian kidvid stars.

Deflector screens went up pretty hastily over at Electrolite once the faintest hint of a critique of science fiction fandom was sensed in my piece. I like a cheap joke at the expense of someone badly dressed as Commander Adama as much as the next guy, but knocking science fiction fandom or mistaking it for narcissistic celebrity worship would be a supreme act of self-hatred on my part. Not only do I have a recent essay on this blog about my irritation that Kang the Conqueror’s invasion of the planet Earth was taken with insufficient seriousness by Marvel Comics, my manifesto on the state of academic cultural studies is in many ways a call for it to learn from what Patrick Nielsen Hayden defines fandom as, “a bohemian network of affinity groups”, and to adopt a critical voice which is a more rhetorically middlebrow and more powerfully influenced by and intertwined with the interpretative frameworks that fans create.

I am a science fiction fan. A comics fan. A fan of computer games.

My real, material connections to the networks Patrick describes are thinner and less social, more solitary, than many. I don’t think it makes me less a fan if my participation in fan networks is mediated through online message boards, email listservs, and so on, and are largely expressed through my own canonical knowledge of science fiction literature and media and through private acts of devotion like festooning my shelves with action figures. You don’t have to write filk songs or go to conventions or write K/S or be a paid member of the E.E Doc Smith Official Fan Club to count within Patrick’s definition, I hope.

I had thought that was clear in my Wiggles essay. The distinction I’m shooting for there is between something that squicks me—squicking being a visceral, not entirely rational desire to distinguish between your own practices and someone else’s—and my own fan involvement with science fiction, comic books and computer games. What squicks me is the narcissism and perhaps also lack of proportionality that a certain modality of fannishness seems to license for those in its grip, the lack of ordinary empathy for the humanness of the people who write the books and sing the songs and act the parts.

That it wasn’t clear may have something to do with my own writing, but I think Patrick’s reaction also has a lot to do with what I have come to think of as the “Comics Journal approach to cultural devotion”, which is to react with a mixture of erudite fury and defensive praise of the comics form to even the slightest whiff of someone failing to appreciate the genius of comics and more importantly the legitimacy of devotion to comics. What’s interesting is that this reaction can be triggered easily by either a clueless “outsider” slamming comic books as greasy kid’s stuff or by someone who is unabashedly a “fanboy” in his tastes and critical appreciation for comic books, who could care less about the critical potential of sequential art or about the genius of Maus but who knows a lot about Wolverine and could care less whether Wolverine is art or not.

This is a roundabout way of suggesting that many science-fiction fans, of any and all definitions—and fans of any kind, really, from soap operas to Holmesians—have remarkably thin skins and are quick to take offense. Believe me, I know: I’ve spent a lifetime having to defend my tastes and interests to almost everyone around me, to explain, as Patrick does, that my fandom is “orthagonal” to what the non-fans think it is.

A neighbor and colleague of mine recently got into my inner sanctum, my home office, because his little boy was over and had found my treasure trove of action figures and science fiction novels, all watched over benevolently by my Alex Ross-painted Dr. Fate poster. He was being very pleasant about it, but I could see behind his eyes: “Holy cow, I had no idea he was such a freak”. My own little Comics Journal guy was working up a pretty rigorous screed about how science fiction is great literature and all that, but I managed to stifle it.

The thing of it is, though, that maybe my neighbor really wasn’t thinking that. In fact, when I took the time to listen to him, he seemed pretty interested in the theological usefulness of the Manicheanism of Star Wars and Lord of the Rings (he’s in the Religion Department).

And maybe you can say that a fan who lets his fandom turn into creepy devotional obsession or just ordinary narcissistic disregard for an author or a performer’s humanity is a problem without indicting fandom as a phenomenon. At least, that’s what I thought I said.