Friday, January 27, 2006

Understanding Fanboys: "Don't Encourage Your Fanboys"

In his first book, Brain Droppings, comedian George Carlin lays out, in his patented "fuck you, this is how things are" manner, a hierarchy of importance in professional sports. In descending order, it goes like this: Athletes, owners, fans, media. He might as well have been talking about comics, because if you sub in creators and publishers in the top two spots, you get an accurate hierarchy for that world as well. Heck, since the comics media is largely comprised of amateur fan-journalists, you can even combine the last three if you want, and get "creators, publishers, fans."

But don't ever tell a fanboy this. It shatters that most precious of American* illusions, the illusion of control. In whatever we do, we like to feel that we have power, influence, control over our lives. It's why all managers in the food service industry are dicks, it's why the President of the United States can rationalize getting a blowjob while on the phone to a foreign consul, and it's why fans and fanboys alike rage, rage against the stories they don't like. After all, fans are consumers, and don't consumers control, by the force of their dollars, what products make it onto the market?

Well, no, not really. Thomas Friedman's naïve babbling to the contrary, consumers have almost zero power in the western market economy. While they do determine which of the available products succeeds and fails (one need only look at the single-episode run of the Heather Graham vehicle/sitcom "Emily's Reasons Why Not" to see this dictum proven), the determination of what products are available is completely out of their hands. Dave Barry summed this up eloquently several years ago when he wrote a column about taking a radio focus group phone survey. The person on the line would play small snippets of songs and record his reactions as "like" or "don't like." But, if Dave suggested a song that wasn't on the surveyor's pre-approved list (I believe his exact example was the Beach Boys' "Custom Machine," a song I have never heard, despite being a Beach Boys nut with a Beach Boys nut father), the only response was a second of silence, followed by the next song snippet. The consumer's input is only desired when it coincides with what the producer has already decided to sell. Or, to borrow another line from Carlin, "You pays your money and you takes whatever they feel like giving you."

So fans, for all their wailing and gnashing of teeth (I refer interested parties to the thread on Newsarama regarding the announced cover price for DC's 52 miniseries, full of what has to be the most futile such display I have seen in quite some time), have very little power. And, like anyone arguing from a position of weakness, they imagine themselves as anything but. The fans, we are told, are the true owners of the characters, with the publishers as mere custodians, who can and should be thoroughly chastized and excoriated until they comply with the wishes of those who know what is best. This is only a slightly exaggerated version of an argument I have heard time and again, sometimes from people regarded as serious and important authorities in the industry. People whose opinions matter have convinced themselves of this happy little lie.

It goes without saying that this is a horribly dangerous thing for an industry. Fantasy is all well and good for the content of comics (it's why I came to the medium, and it's why I stay), but when it comes to the way we think about them, nothing but the harsh reality will do. Following where the path of self-delusion leads can only bring disaster.
Case in point: Hal Jordan.

To sum up for newcomers: Starting in 1959, Hal Jordan was DC's Green Lantern. One of the shining figures of the Silver Age, he was an officer in a galactic corps of Green Lanterns, a kind of cosmic supercop with a magic ring, charged with keeping the peace in the space sector that contains Earth. He had his fans and his detractors, and on a few occasions was replaced by other Earthlings as the Lantern of Sector 2814, but remained constant for almost four decades. In 1994, however, sales on his title were waning, and, bolstered by the sales successes of "The Death of Superman" and "Knightfall," DC decided to shake things up with Hal as well. So, over the course of five issues (the last three comprising the meat of the story, titled "Emerald Twilight"), Hal's hometown of Coast City was destroyed by an alien warlord, the all-powerful Guardians who oversaw the Green Lantern Corps refused to grant him enough power to remake it (and resurrect its people), Hal snapped, killed several Green Lanterns and took their rings, drained the Power Battery on Oa (leaving every GL he hadn't killed suddenly powerless), renamed himself Parallax, and left for parts unknown (it was eventually revealed that he was mucking about with the fabric of space-time, trying to rewrite history and save Coast City that way. To say that it didn't work would be a literally catastrophic understatement). The last remaining Guardian poured the last reserves of energy into one last ring and gave it to literally the first guy he ran into, starving artist Kyle Rayner.

Hal's fans went berserk. I sympathize with them, to a degree; of all the ways to shuffle Hal offstage and bring on a new guy, this was the worst DC could possibly have chosen. Friendships could have been saved and flamewars avoided if they had simply gone with the tried-and-true "dies saving a puppy/the Justice League/Earth/The Universe" method. On the subject of Kyle, I differ with most hardcore Hallies, as I see him as the ultimate sci-fi Horatio Alger story, building himself up out of almost nothing almost by sheer determination. But that's another entry. My focus here is not on the characters, but the reaction to them.

The reaction quickly gained a name: HEAT. Hal's Emerald Attack Team (quickly renamed Hal's Emerald Action Team when a legion of fans screaming for editors' jobs on a platter was somehow interpreted as dangerously fanatical). HEAT is without a doubt the most staggering example of fanboyism the world has ever known: a lobbying group centered around protesting the events of a comic book story. Never have so many poured so much energy into something so trivial for a goal so impractical. Through letter-writing, paid advertisements in industry publications,** and a non-stop Internet campaign that resembled nothing so much as the lady on the corner of 42nd and 6th trying to convert yuppies and tourists to Jesus with a bullhorn, they demanded that the editor and writer responsible for "Emerald Twilight" be summarily and permanently dismissed from DC, that Kyle Rayner be ejected from the title (preferably by means of a horrible death), and that Hal Jordan be not only reinstated as "The One True Green Lantern," but also exonerated of his crimes of mass murder and attempted historical genocide. They pleaded, they cajoled, they screamed, they they held their breaths until they passed out and hit their heads on the coffee table…

And they won. God help us all, they won. It took them ten years, several editorial shifts, and the rise to prominence of an admitted Hal-fanboy among DC's stable of writers, but they won. In November of 2004, DC published issue one of Green Lantern: Rebirth, the miniseries that undid nearly every change of "Emerald Twilight." (Kyle Rayner survived, and will see a new ongoing called "Ion" in 2006. Everything else, changed back faster than you can say "It was all a dream.")

And dear God, did it suck. The rationale given for Hal's sudden and abrupt shift has become a shorthand for "horrible plot device:" Yellow Fear Monster. Seriously. Hal was possessed by a Yellow Fear Monster. Killing his fellow Lanterns? Yellow Fear Monster. Draining the power battery? Yellow Fear Monster. Attempting to rewrite history, nearly wiping out the universe in the process, and killing several of his former friends and allies? Yellow Fear Monster. Sideburns went prematurely grey? Yellow Fear Monster. I'm not making that last one up; Hal's sideburns really did go grey a few years prior to Emerald Twilight, and "Rebirth" really did explain it away as the work of the Yellow Fear Monster.

But worse than the ridiculous plot is the real message "GL: Rebirth" sent to fandom: Throw a big enough tantrum, and you'll get your way. Screw bargaining, despair, and acceptance; stick with denial and anger for long enough, and be loud enough at it, and your loss will be magically whisked away when someone who sympathizes gets the power to make decisions. That's a really lousy moral, but "Rebirth" is a really lousy comic.

Reality check: The fans are not in control. Or at least, they shouldn't be. Creators are on top of the chain; without their work, the entertainment wouldn't exist in the first place. Publishers are next; without their connections, the entertainment wouldn't be able to reach anyone. The fans are dead last; they are there so the creators have someone to communicate their message to. They are vital in interpreting and approving or rejecting the message, but they should not, they cannot control the message. If they do, the serpent begins to devour its tail, and the twilight is truly upon us.

Who thinks it's a good idea to encourage the worst examples of a subculture to continue with their irrational, destructive behavior? What kind of organization hands the keys to the kingdom to the lunatic fringe? What kind of leaders encourage this kind of behavior?

*I should just come out and say that I'm largely talking about American comics and American fans in these entries. Observers from other countries are welcome to chime in with their comments.

**Wizard Magazine, in one of its few examples of sublime humor, spoofed these ads brilliantly with its April Fool's ad for GEAT, G'Nort's Emerald Action Team, centered around the notion of a similar group lobbying for the reinstatement of an obscure canoid Green Lantern universally regarded as a failure in and out of the DC Universe. Quoth the ad: "Make Time-Warner, a multibillion-dollar international corporation, change their carefully-laid editorial plans on your say-so!"

1 comment:

Bruce L Grubb said...

The thing is that Hal fans knew that they could win based on what had happened with which in many ways is the poster child of fanboy activism: Star Trek.

Given a third season and kept alive through syndication and fanfiction Star Trek had (and more importantly gained) such a following that it could not be ignored.