Comics: Beyond the Beano – a short study of fandom
Some of you may recall last November we posted up a call from Karl Johnson, a sociology student at my alma mater, Queen Margaret University College in Edinburgh, who was working on his dissertation. Karl has chosen to study fandom and had comics fandom in particular as his focus, an interesting subject given both the increasing acceptance of the medium outside its normal readership these days (mainstream press, literary festivals and awards, as we’ve reported on here numerous times) and the increase in academic interest in the medium (both as study subject for academics and as courses for students). As I said at the time, any of us who have been through the ordeal of putting together a dissertation know that you make things a lot simpler by setting yourself simple goals and parameters. In this case Karl wanted to examine some of what readers got out of their comics experiences, and he set himself a small sample of male readers based in Scotland to talk to.
Of course with a small sample you can’t draw huge conclusions – as Karl notes himself – but as with any such research small scale, fairly intimate studies can often throw up some interesting areas that may be worthy of further research by others further down the line, and the fact that some of what his subjects said contradicts some studies in US comics fandom also highlights some potentially fruitful avenues for future research (one of the almost counter-intuitive aspects of academic research sometimes is that getting findings which contradict related studies often proves more useful in terms of shining a light on a good area to probe a bit further). Karl was back in touch with us recently – he got himself six subjects of differing ages happy to talk to him about their different experiences and I am pleased to say his study got the best mark in his year (go, Karl!). We’ve something a bit different for you here today – Karl has been kind enough to rewrite a short report on his findings to share with us here on the blog, I hope you find it interesting (Ernesto, we’re looking in your direction here!):
Last winter I conducted interviews with six participants on matters of identity, fandom, stigma, and their consumption of culture. I wanted to know how people ‘already on the inside’ of comics feel about themselves, and the medium, at a time when comics are staking a significant place in mainstream culture. Six male participants – rather than any gender – purely for the fact that the scale of my study needed things to be kept simple. Rather belatedly (and hence apologetically), I’d like to broadly share the results of my small-scale study, without spending too much time on details and technical jargon.
My participants lived in Edinburgh, Glasgow, and Fife; ranging from late teens to early forties; and regularly consumed comic books/graphic novels. They’d started reading comics, variously: to escape an insular neighbourhood; because a parent or friend had introduced them; as a comfort during a difficult childhood; and purely out of curiosity.
Fandoms have been explained by Jeffrey A. Brown, Cheryl Harris, and Henry Jenkins as social communities (whether physical or virtual) with a strong solidarity based upon particular texts or artefacts, e.g. cult television series. Typically, fandoms are concerned with what Pierre Bourdieu considered ‘low’ forms of culture, whose distribution was generally cheap and widespread; favoured by the ‘lower’ social classes. His theories of cultural production have been adapted to give serious attention to comic books (for example, by Casey Brienza and John Fiske).
The six participants were committed to comics as legitimate cultural objects. There were issues surrounding terminology, however. Four were comfortable with ‘geek’ as a descriptor (indeed, Participant C was fiercely proud of his geek status) which distinguished themselves within society. Arguably, all six met numerous characteristics of geeks (according to John A. McArthur, among others). The term ‘nerd’ brought about some ill-defined discomfort, which may be due to the wider acceptance and usage of the word geek in mainstream culture. Participant B (the oldest of my sample) saw these kinds of self-identifying terms as pejorative labelling, contributing to the ongoing struggle to see comics taken seriously. It was his view that describing comic book readers as geeks, etc. reinforced the stigma historically attached to the comic community, maintaining its cultural position as one resembling a ghetto.
Much of the sociological literature on comic book fandom makes some mention of the stigma associated with comic books and their readership. Paul Lopes invokes the work of Erving Goffman on stigma in relation to comic books. We continually assess and adapt to other people during our social interactions; reinforcing society’s norms social order through the course of our daily lives. If we meet someone with a characteristic that society deems unattractive, then we are prejudiced towards them (whether consciously or not), and they’re stigmatised because of it. Lopes recounted the historical stigma of comic books, e.g. the Fredric Wertham years, and maintained that today comic fans are still tarred with the same brush: as the ‘fanboy’ (essentially The Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons).
Actual experiences of stigma were notably few among my sample; most were more concerned with public ignorance towards the variety and quality of sequential art that persists today. Nobody had encountered much more than the token classmate in school who’d asked why they were reading something “for kids”. However, for one participant, the perceived public stigma of being an adult reading comics had become internalised, and they had to negotiate conflicting feelings about their interest in comics and what it meant about who they were. This internalisation most likely came about due to the fact that they were relatively new to comics as an adult. For this participant, the act of regularly visiting their local comic shop was described as something of a personal failure.
Comic shops were a recurring theme. Collectively, the sample suggests that there are far more ‘bad’ comic shops than ‘good’ ones, and that they generally do not provide the type of sanctuary or community focal point that the academic literature suggests that they are. Four participants had had quite negative experiences in comic shops, and it was suggested that shops may be a decisive factor in the public perception of comics. Frustration was the dominant feeling.
Following Bourdieu’s lead, comic shops should provide an arena for fans to display their knowledge and expertise (aka cultural capital), in order to affirm their – somewhat abstract – level of prestige and authority (aka symbolic capital) within the comics community. This is exhibited in our decisions on which books to buy, and in conversations with friends and shop staff on particular issues or creators. Participant C, for example, compared the writing of Brian Michael Bendis with Aaron Sorkin and David Mamet. Participant B exhibited a huge wealth of knowledge and experience – discussing (in great detail) dozens of books, writers and artists from across his life with comics. This qualified him as an ‘autodidact’, a self-taught expert whose cultural and symbolic capital may be measured against other community members.
Lopes, Benjamin Woo, and Brian Swafford in particular have claimed the comic book shop as a ‘Bourdieusian’ cultural sanctuary; and thrown in Goffman’s work on social interaction to further the image of a thriving community found amongst the trade paperbacks. As far as my sample was concerned – and I fully understand it’s a small sample – the literature does not match the fact. Amateur groups (e.g. The Big Glasgow Comic Page) and university societies were suggested by participants as the more likely avenue for socialising within the comics community.
I wonder if a discrepancy exists because the vast majority of research on comic fandom has been conducted in North America. Will Brooker has looked at UK cultural communities (his paper on a Lewis Carroll Society is worth a look), but the focus on this side of the Atlantic has so far mostly been from literary and creative aspects.
But it’s the comic that hooks us, and likewise five of my participants recognised that they positively constructed and maintained their sense of ‘who they were’ and their daily lives in relation to comics as a significant guiding factor. They exhibited what Zygmunt Bauman, Anthony Giddens, and Stuart Hall understand as ‘postmodern identities’ which are defined by cultural and symbolic objects or practices, rather than by occupation, class, etc.
Eric Maigret explored allegiances to Marvel comics, and the emotional investment that male readers had for their characters (most notably Peter Parker) from childhood into adulthood. Complex characterisation and real-life issues resonated very deeply with young people, weighing heavily on their personal development and outlook on life. Marvel had been a major starting point for all but one of my participants, and they looked fondly on the publisher and its characters like old friends. Indeed, half the sample continue to read some Marvel superhero titles in adulthood with the same passion. Participant E remains heavily invested in Marvel comics (with perhaps an encyclopaedic knowledge), and related to the fictional personal issues of certain characters.
In a natural progression from Maigret’s findings, my participants expressed allegiances and empathy with comic writers and artists, and the personalities and experiences they convey through their work. The means by which a message is conveyed on the page, was described by participants as having a profound impact on their world-view. It is not only the content, but the medium itself, which makes a significant contribution to who they are.
And there was a great emphasis on the promotion and protection of comics as a medium, with participants displaying an awareness of the discussion of comics in mainstream media; such as the appreciation of work by Mary and Bryan Talbot. It was heart-warming to hear about the serious attention Participants D and E had given comics in their own dissertations. I’d be very interested to know how many young, academically-minded people are producing high-quality work that perhaps never sees the light of day.
Finally, the expense of comics was repeatedly mentioned. Trades/graphic novels (often shared amongst friends, or borrowed from the library) and *cough* ‘free’ downloads were the main formats consumed. The idea of actively collecting, ‘bagging & boarding’, and archiving their stash – as an investment or not – was seen as a ‘step too far’. The sample thought it missed the point of enjoying comics as an accessible art form, and diminished the appreciation of creator’s work and message. This attitude rather flies in the face of an oft-referenced work by Jonathan David Tankel & Keith Murphy, which described the habitual behaviours of the comic collector; but again, this was a small sample which only scratches the surface of the comic community.
Likewise, I’m afraid I’ve only provided you with what feels like an introductory discussion of comics in sociology. Comics have never had it better in terms of their cultural acceptance, and I feel that – such as with the fine work being done at the University of Dundee – academic attitudes are also becoming much more positive.