Matthew A. Cicci
Hello Alexandra, I’m eager to have this discussion with you, as I see that you have a vested interest in both literary fans and transmedia issues. This works for me; I’m particularly engaged in understanding how fandoms evolve in the face of their fan objects’ proliferation across multiple media spaces.
My work, to date, has primarily examined superheroes, their fans, and the proliferation of these icons across multiple media spaces. While some might quibble with thinking of superhero comic fans as literary, there is a storied history of fan production and engagement. And, although superheroes have been objects of adaptation since their origin, the past 20 or so years has seen a marked rise in and sustained success of superhero stories in non-comic book media (primarily film). I am fascinated by the nature of adaptation, and therefore I’m always tracing the evolution of superheroes across media. However, I’m particularly keen on watching the fandom continually reconstitute itself in the wake of the ever-progressing, ever-widening audience for this once-niche genre.
Today, the notion of superheroes is largely divorced from comic books. Critically, commercially, and culturally, the populace has begun to equate superheroes not with comic books but the the summer blockbuster film. Contemporary superhero stories are primarily multimodal, as opposed to transmedia stories — that is to say, what happens in the Black Panther movie is not followed up directly in the comic book canon; each medium tells its own story. This convoluted flux of characters, plots, and themes has muddied the waters of the fandom in many ways. Traditional comic sites cover the films and television as much as they do the comic books. New fans enter the world of superhero fandom through non-comic book gateways in greater numbers than before AND maintain fandom not by reading books, but by engaging in other, more accessible offerings. In a sense, there have never been more superhero fans! Yet, the comic book, the comic shop, and that traditional fan space is, in a fashion, receding.
I’ve charted the teeth-gnashing and intra-fandom squabbles this can lead to. The mastery of superhero or publishing knowledge inherent to recognizing oneself as a traditional comic book fan, doesn’t fly in the face of the new paradigm. The success of the films gives everyone a new, shared, and easily accessed origin point thus mitigating knowledge of the comic’s canon.. My work often explores this evolution (or, more specifically, hybridizing) of the pre-existing comic reading fandom in the face of the larger multimodal one.
However, I suppose I am an optimist, too.
Over the past few years, comic publishers have made a concerted (and obvious and, occasionally, awkward) push towards becoming more diverse. In Marvel Comics nearly 70 years of publishing, they’ve never offered as many books headlining characters who are not straight, white males as they do today. It is hard not to equate some of that to the thrill around movies like Black Panther or DC’s Wonder Woman. And, while those movies are impactful, this trend precedes them. It seems the greater availability to superheroes in this era of blockbuster comic book adaptations (and digital reading) has made more pronounced how meaningful representation is in narratives so laser-focused on heroism and empowerment. These stories resonate with wide audiences, who in turn, thanks to the tools of social media, can discuss, produce, and voice their opinions on the genre.
To open this up a bit, I’m reminded of our esteemed host’s take on the role of theory in fan studies — that fan scholars should seek new theoretical lenses to keep the work fresh. I agree; yet, I cannot leave the foundational thinkers of Michel De Certeau and John Fiske, who I see as more relevant now than ever. De Certeau’s strategies and tactics (the hegemony’s structures and the individual workarounds to said structures, respectively) and Fiske’s conceptualizations on power via popular consumption have a lot to say about how today’s fandoms evolve. While I’m hesitant to suggest that fans are successfully challenging an external power system, I cannot help but see the ability to alter our surroundings based on what we consume and use as a way to frame emerging fans as resistant to media production and consumption systems. My most recent work, for example, documents how female readers of superhero comics have been shifting the comic publishers’ plans and challenging the perceived ‘maleness’ of superhero fandom, but it is more widespread than that.
And this leads to where I think fan studies needs to focus.
Look how casually resistant we are to official (or traditional) channels of production. What would De Certeau say about the Twitch or Patreon economy? What does Fiske have to offer the concept of Kickstarter and Let’s Play Channels on YouTube? How might they grapple with the fact that many today get more entertainment mileage out of Instagram than watching sports or sitcoms? In an effort to grapple with this modern day economy of fandoms and participation, I find myself returning to these two foundational thinkers more and more emphatically. If my work divides the fans of superheroes by the medium with which they entered the fandom, it is only because I see in that a model by which we might look at fandoms large scale. There is this flux of temporality and proximity in everything we do on the digital scale. I got into Spider-Man in 1986...but I’m dealing with fans who got into the character in 2016 AND 1963 when I’m engaging online. Moreover, I’m finding myself increasingly consuming more fan-produced content around my fan objects than the objects themselves itself. Sure, I engage with my hobbies, but I am increasingly a fan of other fans...I’m amazed at how much of my own media consumption is actually consumption of other fan work - podcasts, blogs, twitter, Patreons, etc. It is not news that fans are becoming the producers, but is it that fans are becoming fans of fans?
All of this seems bundled in a way that fan studies is poised to unpack. Help me Alexandra...what is going on here?
I want to jump into my introduction by talking a bit about my personal history in fandom and how that has shaped my forthcoming book project, Fanaticism, Yes! Literary Fan Cultures in the Early Twentieth Century. The book examines the work of popular American women writing in “middlebrow” and regional forms, and the fan responses to such work, in order to present a counter-history of fan cultures—one that returns women to center stage, while arguing for a more complex, less hierarchical understanding of authorship, genre, and the American literary marketplace in the modernist era.
And it was inspired, as so many fanworks are, by obstinacy.
I found Western media fandom when I was 13 years old, searching the internet for information about my favorite television show, Buffy the Vampire Slayer (BtVS). It was 1998; the show was in its second season and gaining popularity. I stumbled onto The Bronze, a BtVS fan message board hosted by the show’s network. (The Bronze message boards were named after the location where characters in BtVS hung out, a local all-ages club with live music. Posters to the boards maintained this interactive transmedia fiction by textually performing as though the Bronze (forum) were the Bronze (club). They described the outfits they were (fictionally) wearing for a night out, and wrote about threads (messages and their responses) as if they were real locations, using spatial metaphors to describe their virtual participation. For example, if an interesting conversation were going on in another thread lower down the list, a poster might write that they were “running downstairs to join the party.”) Here, I was quickly initiated into a sprawling, exciting, immensely creative community of women who gathered via the internet—at the Bronze but also at their own websites and online archives—to analyze, critique, and imaginatively expand the media we loved. These women wrote fic, beta’d each other’s stories, drew fan art, created fanmixes, made manipulated images (manips), wrote meta, made fanvids, did cosplay, crafted replica props, coded and maintained fan fiction archives, recorded podfic, campaigned against misogyny and rape culture on television (fan activism), and much else besides. They were passionate and productive, and above all they refused to let any possibility pass them by, relentlessly rewriting every single given fact of the show.
Fandom became a way of life for me. It was—and still is—both my community and a collection of practices that taught me how to engage with texts, how to analyze them, and how to marry that analysis with my own deep emotions about them in order to creatively expand, alter, or entirely rewrite them. Fandom prepared me for my career as a literature scholar—but when I began my graduate studies, I was surprised and dismayed to learn that fans and literature scholars rarely realized that they spoke the same language. English as a discipline seemed largely unaware of fandom and its creations. Fans, even acafans, stressed the primacy of television as the fannish medium of choice. Media studies scholars maintained what I call fandom’s “creation myth”: the overly-simplified and historically inaccurate story that fandom was created by a small group of white male science fiction fans who somehow spontaneously invented fan conventions, fan magazines, and fan fiction in the 1930s.
But I saw fan practices everywhere in literature! I saw the ancestors of my BtVS posting board friends in Jane Austen, who practiced “face-casting” the characters in her books; in the Brontë sisters, who as children filled small handmade “zines” with elaborate, interconnected stories; in Louisa May Alcott, who refused to unite the couple her fans “shipped” in her work-in-progress (“WIP”); in Anita Loos, whose books and films included intertextual references to her other films and books; in H.D., who transported the poetry of Sappho to Pennsylvania; in Nella Larsen, who rewrote a Sheila Kaye-Smith story to “racebend” the characters. These women, writing before, during, and after the supposed “invention” of fandom, prefigured both the spirit and the specific textual practices of the fan communities in which I grew up.
So I set out in the book to unearth the literary history of “fandom,” that loose network of communities of interest and practice. I could have told the story in any number of ways, but I made three choices that fundamentally shape my project. First, like many fan fiction writers, I let my obstinacy guide me. I chose the three interrelated claims that most rankled—that we owe fan clubs and conventions, fan magazines, and fan fiction to white male science fiction fans of the 1930s—and shaped my work around refuting them. Second, I restricted my research to the United States (in part because of how academic publishing works). Third, I sought out authors, fans, and communities who were either not white, not male, or not writing or reading science fiction. This led me to the work of women regionalists, a Black Arts poet, and the girls who read love pulps and “middlebrow” magazines.
A big part of this work has been dedicated to demonstrating that our current ideas about transmedia are fundamentally built on a system of cultural production that has been turning its gears since at least the 1880s. (I think it was absolutely possible to be a fan of other fans in the heyday of, say, Hollywood fan magazines.) And at the same time, of course, I’m hugely invested in contemporary transmedia—both in my own work on transmedia webseries like The Lizzie Bennet Diaries and in my own daily experiences as a fangirl on the internet (especially as I’ve very, very recently fallen in love with Japanese pro-wrestling, a fandom with a huge and hugely organic transmedia apparatus).
I’d be interested to talk through some more of the gender issues in particular as we get the conversational ball rolling. From my own research, I’d say it’s ahistorical to see fandom as a subculture that is only recently diversifying. I wonder, as well, how much of the diversification of the media products themselves is actually a kind of cyclical process attended by some very deep historical forgetting. And of course, there are issues of power to be unpacked as well—not only who has the power to tell stories, but who has the power to remember stories?