When people use the word “fandom,” I often wonder just what exactly it is that they think they're describing.
After all, fandom is a big amorphous concept, and there is no one face of it. However, if you really want to take the temperature of where we are right now, there's really no better place to do it than the San Diego Comic-Con, and this year, I decided that I want to start a new tradition when we come back from Comic-Con each year.
Here, then, is 2015's State Of The Union for fandom in all its weird and wonderful glory.
GROWING BUT FRACTURED
The first thing that is evident is that whatever fandom was, it not longer is that thing. It has become more inclusive, more aware, and far more vocal than ever before. It is also deeply fractured, and it has become increasingly difficult for any single property to unite people. And that's a good thing in the close-up, because it means that there are real voices breaking through. Right now, there are more ways to reach an audience than there have ever been before, and the people who thrive in this new era are going to be people who know how to cultivate a relationship with their readers or viewers or fans… whatever you want to call them.
There was an awkward moment at the start of Kevin Smith's annual Hall H panel because he was following “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” in the room. When JJ Abrams announced that there was a free “Star Wars” concert happening after the panel, and everyone in the room was invited, they cleared that nearly-7000 people group out in a big way. There were a few photos snapped of a nearly empty Hall H at the start of the panel, and people got a good little espresso shot of schadenfreude out of it. What wasn't as widely-circulated was the way the room then filled back up. Not completely, of course, but Smith definitely had a solid crowd. And even better, he knows that those people were in the room to see him. They weren't just sitting there waiting for something else that they “really” wanted to see; Smith was what they really wanted to see. He's going to be able to spend the rest of his life doing what he does because he has a loyal audience. You can call them a niche if you want, but what more does he need? He's embraced it, and he's flourishing.
EMBRACE THE NICHE
Part of that is recognizing that the niche is glorious, whatever niche it is you occupy. Trying to be all things to all people really doesn't work in art, and especially with these kinds of stories. So many of my favorite books or films or television shows seem to be divisive, and part of what makes me more vocal about those things is that sense of resistance. When someone hates something I love, I don't hate that person. I just double down on my love of the thing. Here's where fandom fails right now, because it feels like the default position is to attack, and that can be enormously off-putting.
Here's a very specific example: I love “Man Of Steel.” Wholeheartedly. Nothing's changed since it came out. If anyone wants to have a conversation with me about the film, I would gladly do so. I can tell you why I like this version, and it's way more than just “he punches things.” And when we saw that “Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice” trailer on Saturday in Hall H, I thought it looked great. Again… if you want, I'm happy to break down what I find intriguing about this take on things.
LOVE WINS EVERY TIME
But if you want to you can find ten impassioned think pieces right now that have already declared the film a failure, and that absolutely reject what Snyder's doing. They hate the tone, the story, the look of it… and they hate “Man Of Steel.” When I talk to one of those people, there is an anger about it that goes above and beyond, and it's not enough that they don't like it. I have been yelled at, literally, as if “Man Of Steel” did something to these people on a personal level.
When I didn't care for “Superman Returns,” I didn't feel some pathological need to hammer anyone who did like it. Far from it; the last real conversation I had about it was with a friend who adores Superman, and listening to her points about why she loves the film made me want to try it again. They didn't make me dig my heels in and tell her why she's wrong. More than ever, I would remind you that in a conversation where one person hates something and the other person loves it, there's really only one winner, and that's the one who loves it. Because no matter how that conversation ends, that person still has this piece of art that they love. It exists, and someone else's opinion isn't going to make it disappear off of your bookshelf.
DON'T JUST RUSH TO EMBRACE STREAMING
Actually, I take that back. It might. As physical media lets off its death rattle and everything heads towards a streaming model, you're only going to have access to the things that the rights holders want you to have access to, and only in the form they want to give it to you. I would love to get my hands on a Blu-ray copy of “Joe Vs. The Volcano,” which Warner Archive would probably need to release at this point. But will they ever do one? There's no way of knowing. I was thrilled recently when Shout Factory announced they're releasing “Death Becomes Her” on Blu-ray, and surprised. That movie was considered a bomb when it was released, and while I love it, I haven't really seen a major shift in attitude or demand from fandom. If not for Shout Factory, there's a chance that film would simply vanish from circulation. You do that to a film long enough, and the studio might forget they own it at all.
If you embrace this fully-streaming model, you're telling the studios and the other distributors that you trust them to keep all of your favorite things available. So if that thing you love is a niche item, then part of what you have to do as a fan is use the Internet and use events like Comic-Con to connect with the other fans of that thing, and then make as much goddamn noise as you can make. If HotToys puts out that $700 collectible 1:1 recreation of the coffee table from the apartment of the character you adore, then buy that coffee table. Vote with your dollar. That is where fandom is at its most powerful right now. When you embrace something and you start supporting it, you are sending the message that you want more.
FANDOM CAN CHANGE THE WORLD
That's financial power I'm talking about, of course. There is another kind of power that fandom has that is far more important, and it was on full display this past week. Passion is one of the key ingredients of fandom, the unifying spark that drives all of this stuff, and right now, the question that fandom has to ask itself is which direction they want to move using that spark as fuel. There's something wonderful about knowing that Michael B. Jordan got the loudest reaction from Hall H out of the “Fantastic Four” cast, and seeing John Boyega onstage as the new face of “Star Wars” feels like things are genuinely progressing. There are going to be people who can't adapt with things, who can't grow, and those types of fans have always mystified me. One of the reasons I was drawn to science-fiction and fantasy and horror when I was young was because so much of it feels like a plea to make room for The Other, and it fostered a worldview for me that has always been inclusive. As much as Jim Henson's vision of a world where blacks and whites and Hispanics and puppets and monsters and birds could live side by side, in any configuration that made them happy, it was science-fiction and fantasy that taught me to be inclusive. One of the biggest disappointments for me over the last 17 years of writing online has been seeing how often I've run into racism and grotesque misogyny and a small-minded grubby sort of boy's club thing have been the secret engines of giant swaths of fandom. One of the reasons I dropped out of the entire Comic-Con culture for a while (I managed to dodge six or seven in a row) was because it felt hostile and ugly, both online and off.
Right now, I see the voices in fandom that used to be marginalized moving towards the center of things, and the key to that seems to be a sort of unified support for each other. Imagine that. The more represented people feel in things, they more they will support and consume them. Just in case there's anyone out there who hasn't figured this out yet, the secret to survival in this brave new world with this new and difference face of fandom is a willingness to let go of the old defaults and tell stories about people who have not seen themselves onscreen in those roles before. This isn't a world of quotas; that implies that at some point, we'll revert to the status quo. I don't believe that's the case. This is not a momentary thing. This is fandom now. When the “Twilight” fans went to war with the “Avatar” fans in 2009, there was a feeling that was only a temporary thing, but with each new year, it's become clear that was a milestone, a moment that announced that audiences who felt traditionally sidelined weren't going to be any longer. No matter what I do or don't like, I am encouraged by the way fandom has, for the most part, proved willing to expand, to open up. Conversations that used to happen simply between fans on a one-to-one level are happening on the main stages of the event now.
If I have one piece of advice for fandom in the next year, it is that the time has come to set aside the tantrum as a tactic. I've written here before about the “fan-trum,” the collective losing-of-the-shit that happens sometimes over all sorts of issues and announcements and details of things. As fans find themselves more and more embraced by publishers and producers and artists, they feel empowered, and that can lead to wild overreactions. But just like fans expect artists to make themselves available and they want to be able to have some impact on the people who have had such a profound impact on them, they have to understand that the artists are human, and they are rarely just doing things out of malice. No one ever cast a movie by saying, “Hey, how can we really seriously disrespect the fans of this thing? Is there something we could do that would just say, 'We hate you and we hate what you like'?” To bring things full circle, I understand that you may not like Zack Snyder's work, but I have rarely seen anyone work harder or with such a focus on details, all of it in an effort to hopefully entertain. Fandom pushes back; that's part of it. No doubt about it. But that push doesn't have to be a punch every single time, and maybe fandom should start saving the outrage up for things that genuinely matter.
I'm curious to see how other people felt after the event, and how it feels for those of you who weren't in San Diego. I feel like it was a microcosm of everything I see every day online, and as such, it offers a chance to take a close-up look at where things are, and where they might be headed. I am filled with hope about fandom, something that hasn't always been the case. We have seen how ugly things can get with the schisms in the gaming world recently, but it feels like the larger world of fandom is determined to get it right, and it's working. We're heading in the right direction, and I want to be part of that. I want to be able to raise my kids proudly as fans of all these things, and when I saw the range of kids and young people there with their parents this last week, I think things can only get better and even more inclusive from here. 2015 may not have been the most impressive line-up of all time, but as an event, Jesse Eisenberg couldn't have been more wrong in describing it as a “genocide.” Comic-Con felt like a real celebration this year, and for reasons that are genuinely worth celebrating.
See you next year.