Friday, September 11, 2009

Fan Culture

I've been struggling with what to do with "fan culture" since it's in some ways the foundation of my project. I'm in the thick of it now. But the problem is that I'm a folklorist who wants my book to be about folklore, not about pop culture. Superman is a strange topic for this, since the character arose in pop culture and has resided there for seventy years.

Well, it's not so much a problem in my mind. One of my goals is to demonstrate how little the boundaries of academic disciplines matter to people in their everyday lives. Medium matters to people, but not the way it does to university departments.

The primary thing that separates folklore from popular culture is standardized production--which is largely irrelevant to most people. Folklore is not mass produced. It doesn't come off the assembly line or the printing press. That's key to the definition of folkloristics as an academic discipline. It's what has historically separated it from others, such as English and film studies, etc. The lack of standardized production means that everytime folklore is performed, it will exhibit variation. Every time you tell a story, it will be different, for a possibly infinite number of reasons. And those differences might be meaningful. Then again, they might not. It's what I love about folklore. Endless possibility.

Fan culture does not so much exist for the performances of folklore. It exists for mediated entertainment, such as comic books. The creations of that fan culture, in the form of fan fiction, for example, would not qualify as folklore because the production, while creative, is standardized. Once you write your story and publish it to the internet, it's always the same. The text doesn't change. Every time someone clicks on it to read it, it's the same (other things may change, but that's a different story).

Yet fan culture does exhibit the variation and multiplicity that I love about folklore. It can come in the jokes told, the costumes made (and endlessly changed, as I'm learning through interviews with people who make and wear them--although there are costumes you can buy at the store, which are quite controversial in the world of fan costuming...), there are tattoos, and anecdotes, and all sorts of interesting bits of folklore. That's what I'm writing about in the first four chapters of my book. It's the stuff generally left out of fan culture studies, which focus on institutional, standardized responses to media.

Here's some stuff I've found about fan cultures:

There's a guy named Henry Jenkins who wrote about Fan Culture a while ago. He's got a blog with several entries about Superman. This one, written in response to the 2006 Superman Returns film, is particularly useful.

Then there's Matthew Pustz' book Comic Book Culture: Fanboys and True Believers.

Sort of about fan culture are the works of Lawrence and Jewett: The Myth of the American Hero and The American Monomyth.

Then there's Bill Schelly's The Golden Age of Comic Fandom.

A chapter of Martin Barker's Comics: Ideology, Power and the critics is called "Reading the Readers." I haven't gotten to this yet, but it might be relevant to fan culture.

Christopher Knowles' book Our Gods Wear Spandex: The Secret History of Comic Book Heroes isn't of much use, but it does have a few passages about fans, especially about Alex Ross as a fan-turned-creator.

Speaking of fans as creators, Lauire Cowan's documentary Participate: The Revolution of Fan Culture is not too bad. Mostly interviews from a comic con in New York.

For me, the Holy Grail of Superman responses is the fan who posts to the internet something along the lines of "What Superman Means to Me." It's not as common as I'd like, and I get plenty of it from interviews. This essay by The Onion's Noel Murray is a good one, and it concludes thus:

The appeal of Superman–again, maybe just to me, though I think to others as well–is that because he can do everything, he doesn't have to do much at all. He can take care of business and then chill out, solitude-style, at his Arctic clubhouse, where he tinkers with robots and obsessively arranges his souvenirs into a massive monument to himself. Or he can spend a whole day thinking up the perfect birthday present for Batman. Or he can make publicity appearances, while dodging Lois' attempts to find out his secret identity. The stakes are pretty low in those forty-year-old Superman stories–even in the "imaginary tales" where some bored staffer figured out a way to end the endless Superman saga, at least for a week. And if somebody today wants to know how to write a Superman story, it shouldn't be that hard. Just ask a ten-year-old boy what he'd do if he were Superman, and take notes.

There's other good stuff in there, but this strikes me as something I might quote one day--especially that last line.

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