Sunday, December 20, 2009

Comic Book Fanthropology

Sean Kleefeld recently published a book about comic book fans, and I thought it might be a good one for me to read for this project. It's a pretty good book, overall. He calls it Comic Book Fanthropology. He's serializing it over at the website, or you can plunk down a few bucks for a hardcover, paperback, or pdf over at Kleefeld also keeps a pretty interesting blog.

The book's title throws me off a bit. Kleefeld isn't an anthropologist, nor does he reference anthropologists in his book. Theoretically speaking, his sources come from media studies (McLuhan and Jenkins) as well as social psychology (Tajfel and Turner) more than anything else. I suppose the title might just refer to anthropology as the study of people more than any particular methodology or theoretical stance. And people like puns in titles.

Kleefeld lays out what he's not doing early on: He's not writing a history of fandom, and he's not writing an academic book on fandom. His theory is used sparingly but well applied. Drawing on social psychology (Tajfel and Turner) he elucidates the fact that fandom exists as a social enterprise in part because people like to share their passions and in part because sharing those passions provides an environment where individuals can affirm their identities and boost their sense of self-esteem and -worth. This is all in the early chapters, which also include a brief history. Despite Kleefeld's wish not to write a history, what he does provide works well for him. It shows the origins of fandom as it arises from people getting together to share their passion. First through correspondence and then in person.

In my opinion, the book breaks down in the last few chapters. The chapter I most looked forward to was on participatory culture. Throughout this book, Kleefeld makes the point that fans engage with comics in more ways than merely reading--more than discussing them with friends as well. While Kleefeld lists these ways (including fan music, fiction, costuming, etc) he provides virtually no examples. There's a photo of a man in a Flash suit, but that's about it. Considering that Kleefeld has apparently read Henry Jenkins' Textual Poachers (he cites and quotes Jenkins), this oversight is perplexing.

Perhaps my own perspective will tell you a bit more about why I find this chapter disappointing. I'm a folklorist by training. More than any other discipline, folklore brings to the foreground the texts that are relevant to the discussion. It's not unusual for folklorists to tell whole stories during academic talk, presentations, and lectures. Folklore books include multiple versions of any text being studied. If you want to see an examploe, check out one of the more widely known folklore books, Jan Brunvand's The Vanishing Hitchhiker. This is a classic example of how folklorists work. There are probably ten versions of each urban legend studied in that book. Some people think it's repetitive, and it is, but it's supposed to be. The versions aren't all the same, so you get to see how different people tell the same story. Sometimes, those differences are revealing, sometimes they're curious, and sometimes merely amusing.

Back to participatory culture. Let's look at two examples: fiction and costuming. It's not merely that fans write their own stories about characters they love; it's what's in the stories that's important. Jenkins devotes two chapters to fan fiction, and retells a great many of the stories (and story types) that show up. He's dealing with Star Trek, mostly (which would be important to comics fans). He concludes, in the chapter "Welcome to Bisexuality, Captain Kirk," that the women who write these slash stories are doing so because it enables them to imagine the sorts of relationships they would like to see portrayed on screen. These are women writing about characters in shows produced with a male audience in mind. Often these women don't have much choice in what's on the television, so they make the shows into something that suits them. These factors are important, and I would have liked to see Kleefeld at least explore the fiction surrounding one character.

As for costuming, again, Kleefeld leaves a lot unsaid. I have conducted two short interviews with costumers, and it doesn't seem to me to be all that hard to get information with which to analyze the phenomenon. People want to talk about this stuff. One woman I interviewed talked about the clash between fans who make their own costumes and those who buy them at the store. She said she doesn't enter costume contests because the emphasis is often on who is the most attractive woman rather than on who has the best costume. She talked about the process of making a costume, substituting one piece for another in the same costume as she makes it, always approaching the "perfect" costume but never quite reaching it. All this and much more from 45 minutes. Sometimes just pointing out the controversies is enough.

This is the fieldwork process, which anthropologists as well as folklorists and other employ to get the data for their analysis. It's what I expected. It is not, however, what Kleefeld promised at any time, except perhaps in his title.

I may be being a bit harsh here. The early chapters of the book are quite good. The discussion of cultural capital is rewarding and thorough. He gives a description of the ritual of buying comic books that I find absolutely wonderful and will quote in my book about Superman. His reading is that this process, engaged in repeatedly and recurrently, provides the comfort and stability that we can also find in rituals. It's more than just habit. I also appreciate his qualification on the definition of being a fan. It's not merely something you identify yourself as; another fan must also identify you as one. This fits both Kleefeld's themes of self-esteem and sociality. Is sociality a word?

Other strong points include Kleefeld's acknowledgment of the diversity of fandom, and his bibliography. This last one may not sound like much, but to me it is. He's found some sources I'll be checking out soon, and for me this is a very good thing indeed. I know it may seem strange, but I also appreciate the index.

He gives a lot of time and space to what it means to be a fan. I just wish he's given more to showing what the fans mean when they express themselves. The book is, overall, a little too abstracted from actual fans--too many hypothetical examples, despite the fan profiles that punctuate each chapter.

I'm a fan of the case study. Kleefeld might have really driven home his points if he'd done one or two of these. Followed fans through the process of buying and reading comics to the participatory culture that follows. He gets closest when quoting and discussing fan "origin" stories. These are great. I wanted more. I wanted Kleefeld to point out how each fan describes entering the world of comics with someone. It's always a social process. This is his main point, I think.

Kleefeld cannot be faulted for not writing the book I wanted him to write. There are some omissions that could be rectified in a revised edition. The strucutre is there, and it's a good one.

Wow, that got really long.

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