Friday, February 17, 2006

Understanding Fanboys: A Series of Unfortunate Events

So, last time I talked about how the early letter columns in pulp magazines imparted a sense of belonging, a community, unto the readers of those blessed old trash rags. For the troubled middle-class youth of the 1920s, that was a good thing. Everyone needs someplace they feel they can belong, and fandom fulfills that purpose for many who are unable to find it in conventional society, and I’ve never begrudged it that.

But fandom, like any classification, is a double-edged sword. For with the definition of self comes the sense of the “other,” and it’s all too easy to reduce that other, to dehumanize him. Especially when one is already used to being reduced and dehumanized by others. It’s the cycle of abuse with acne and horn-rims.

I finally started reading Gerard Jones’s Men of Tomorrow, which I received for Christmas, the other day, and I happened upon this passage from Chapter 2: “A real debate raged through fandom in the early 1930s as to whether the fan was simply a person of specific tastes or ‘a superior order of human,’ marked as a higher rung on the evolutionary ladder by ‘his vast imagination and openness to possibility.’” (One can’t help but draw parallels with the series that has become perhaps the epitome of mainstream comics fandom, Marvel’s X-Men, especially the transhumanistic undercurrent present in the run of Grant Morrison.)

And there it is, the dark side of fandom (well, the other dark side, if you ask Mark Waid): the wholly adolescent insistence that my way is better than your way, that I’m right and you’re wrong, that I’m *special*, dammit!

It’s good to feel special. But it’s not good to make other people feel unspecial. And that, more than anything, is the biggest problem with the editorial and marketing tactics prevalent at the “Big Two” today.

Yes, this just turned into a post about Infinite Crisis. I’m no better than any other nerd. But who’s nerdier, the nerd or the nerd who reads him? But that’s another entry.

The current editorial stratagem at both Marvel and DC is to center publishing schedules around “events.” Indeed, the Infinite Crisis paradigm has created a sense of perpetual event storytelling,* where one event flows into the next into the next with no end in sight; Identity Crisis begat Countdown begat Infinite Crisis begat 52 begat One Year Later begat begat begat. It’s enough to make even fanboys want to beget the hell out of the hobby. So imagine how that Quixotic figure of modern-day comics marketing, the new reader, must feel.

Events like Crisis, or House of M, are born out of a celebration of the things that set superhero storytelling apart. The shared universes, the cosmic scope, the talking gorillas. As such, they’re a guaranteed smash with the established fan. Hell, George Perez’s entire career is cemented on his ability to draw every damn character in the DC Universe over the course of the original Crisis on Infinite Earths. These stories are filled with a nerd-exclusive equivalent of the background gags in a Simpsons episode: homage covers, panoramic views of famous images from the history, team-ups and grudge matches, “roll-call” crowd scenes full of characters like Dazzler or the Creeper. I admit it, as a nerd, I like them. But as a critical reader, I can’t help but notice that my enjoyment of them depends entirely upon my great familiarity with their context.

A while back, I was browsing the local comic store’s trade section on a lazy afternoon, and a tourist buying for her nephew back home held up the Complete Age of Apocalypse Vol. 1 trade and asked me if it was any good. Now, I loved that story, still do, but when I tried to tell her *why*, I realized she would have no idea what I was talking about. “Who went back in time and killed who, so who conquered the world and who leads the X-Men?” It’s like trying to explain color to someone who’s been blind since birth; the words aren’t enough without context. So I had to settle for “Yes, it’s very good, one of my favorites.” A ringing endorsement, but also a hollow one, in some ways.

Now, wallowing in the esoterica of your shared universe all well and good for special projects. I’ll be honest; every time another self-indulgent fanboy-pleasing intercompany crossover is announced, I get a hard-on. But to base one’s entire publishing strategy to it, to subsume every title with it, strikes me as a very eggs/basket situation. Sure, they’ve proven that there are around 200,000 hardcore nerds who will eat this stuff up, and goodon’em for it. But this is a nation of over 200,000,000 people. Is that the best we can do?

DC, at least, seems to understand the implications of too much event-driven storytelling; once Infinite Crisis ends, the plan is to let each title, or family of titles in the case of Batman and Superman, go its own way for a while, and leave 52 for the people who like sprawling epics. Marvel, a little behind the curve on this one, is still in love with the easy marketing/PR stance of having at least one event going on all the time. (While House of M, The Other, Planet Hulk, Annihilation, and Civil War aren’t all as interconnected as the Infinite Crisis Gigondonormosity, they do, just by coincidence, happen to fill the schedule such that there won’t be an event-free month in Marvel’s schedule until January of ’07 at the earliest.) And these things are pendular; the prevailing style cycles from tight to diffuse back to tight on and on again, and probably will until someone comes up with a third element to add to the paradigm.

But still, I can’t help but see the effect it’s had on how fandom treats the rest of the world, and itself. The ads for Civil War say it all: “Whose Side Are You On?”

Who are they really talking to?

*Back in the day, I noticed that a certain furniture store in Tulsa, OK, was always advertising a sale at its store. This caused me to muse, if there’s always a sale going on, then is there ever really a sale going on? A sale is a special pricing event, but if the event never ends, is it special? Quesada, DiDio, sit on that one for a while.

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