A Lego Theory of Academia & Fandom
Jenny Keegan / Louisiana State University Press

Lego Bricks

Lego brand bricks, all the better for building up.

I am talking to a man about a piece of writing. He is concerned about the possibility that this piece of writing is perhaps not the final word on the matter. Perhaps someone with more power and authority than the author of this piece of writing will have a different interpretation of the thing on which the piece of writing is based. How will it account for that? It won’t, I tell him. This piece of writing is simply one possible take. Other people having different takes, and sharing them, and talking through their differences, is the point of the exercise. Nothing is final; everything is communal.

Academia, or fandom?

It’s academia! Your hint was that I rarely, rarely talk to men about fanworks unless they are already in fandom, in which case they do not need me to explain how fundamentally iterative transformative fanworks are meant to be.

One of the most consistent dings on fanfiction is the fact that it derives from a source text, the implication being that a piece of art can’t be worthwhile without that new-car smell. Fanfiction’s champions tend to argue for its legitimacy by citing undeniably canonical works from the history of literature: The Aeneid is a fic of the Iliad. Samuel Richardson corresponded with and encouraged a woman writing fic of his work. Byzantine literary culture had a whole genre around assemblage. For my own list in fan studies, I’m perpetually seeking out scholarship that expands the genealogies of fannish history as far back into the mists of time and into as many spheres and disciplines as humanly possible.

None of this is false or invalid, but as an academic gatekeeper for fan studies (among other things), I’d love for the legitimacy of transformative works to be proved by an avenue that doesn’t reinforce the concept of single authorship. The myth of the solitary genius rarely holds much water, examined too closely, but fanfiction’s very being calls it into question. Moreover, the insistence that thingswithwings is doing something quite similar to Virgil—while true!—elides one of the most central facts of transformative fandom: its emphasis on community and the shared ownership of the stories being told.

Flight from Troy

Federico Barocci’s depiction of Aeneas fleeing Troy in the Aeneid.

The best parallel isn’t literature at all but academia, which at its best is both derivative and communal in many of the same ways as transformative fandom. Derivation from work that has come before is central to the scholarly project. A piece of scholarship that fails to acknowledge its fellow scholars won’t get past peer review. Its ability to be in conversation with its community isn’t just a strength; it’s a necessity.

The concept that a text—or a history—is never closed, but is inherently multiple, is one of my favorite things about both academia and fandom. As a scholarly publisher, LSU Press strives to promote work that advances the conversation and pushes other scholars to think in a new way about the disciplines we think we know. You could make the argument that the humanities have no canon, only a series of ever-evolving headcanons taken up and discarded by the fannish community. Or you could say that the canon is reality, and there are no showrunners, just a series of BNFs (published scholars) periodically upsetting the applecart by tracking down brand new canon for all the fans to chew on. Medieval history has thoroughly upset the segment of fandom that yearns to nostalgically retcon Europe in the Middle Ages as an all-white space; Civil War historians are in the process of jossing the fanon of Robert E. Lee as a man of conscience who opposed slavery.

Fandom and academia share a communal ability to keep poking at a text, whether that text is the ever-growing oeuvre of the Russo brothers or the history of European colonization of North America. There is no single story, no final version with which everyone can be contented. Instead there is space to work/play with everything that has come before, in the hopes of finding out some new insight, some new version of the story that resonates differently or creates new connections. Anytime my press is considering a book we ask, “How does this add to the conversation? What makes this matter?”

The protagonists of The Lego Movie preparing to build together.

At the risk of throwing my metaphor-hat into an overcrowded metaphor-ring, I like to think of creating like playing in a vast pool of Lego bricks, where every Lego is an idea, and the things you and your pals can make with them are infinite. (My parents were very broke when I was growing up, and they did not like to step on Legos. I have played with Legos maybe once in my life ever, so please bear with me if I do not accurately describe the Lego-playing experience.)

The cult of originality likes to insist that their baller Lego fighter jet was created in complete isolation from community; they insist their jet has no component parts, no matter how clearly Peter Wimsey is descended from Bertie Wooster. At most they will concede that once they saw a Lego submarine with a similar kind of propeller as the propellers on their fighter jet. By contrast, fanfiction and academia show their work, and their participation in a community of thinkers, as an ineluctable part of the process. The square yellow brick is Hélène Cixous. The long thin red brick is a square from a Bingo Challenge. The builder loves like their own child possesses an affective engagement with their creation, while simultaneously hoping for it to be hacked up and reconstituted by other members of the community.

The wonderful thing is that nobody is ever alone with their Lego sets. Fundamentally, academia and fandom are both about community. They’re about many minds coming together to produce new ideas and help each other with new creations. To hell with the solitary genius. We stand on the shoulders of giant (Lego tower)s.

Image Credits:
1. Lego brand bricks, all the better for building up.
2. Federico Barocci’s depiction of Aeneas fleeing Troy in the Aeneid.
3. The protagonists of The Lego Movie preparing to build together.

Please feel free to comment.




Five Ways I’ve Defined Fan Studies
Jenny Keegan / Louisiana State University Press

SDCC Marvel Group Shot

A picture of the Marvel Cosplay meet-up taken at San Diego Comic Con in 2013.

When you make a career in fan studies, I’ve learned that you must get used to defining it quickly at parties (and conferences, sob). Four years after reading my first fic and twentyish months after arranging for fan studies to be (part of) my job, I still haven’t perfected my elevator pitch, in part because I like the field so much it’s hard to be succinct. But here’s what I’ve got.

    1) “No, not that kind of fans.”

Sometimes people go “Fans? Like, pfft-pfft-pfft, fans?” or make spinny hand gestures at me, which usually means they knew exactly what kind of fans I was talking about and find it ridiculous that there’s a discipline for that. Fan studies scholarship often begins by defending its right to exist, and while I wish that authors didn’t need to issue such disclaimers, I can’t deny that the field comes in for its share of neglect and derision.

A recurring theme in much of fan studies is the outsider status of the communities under study—they’re women, they’re nonbinary, their tastes are weird and fringey, they’re getting queer sex all over your faves. They’re under attack from the lawyers of wealthy creators because nobody’s gay in Star Wars; they’ve been offered a place at the table, as long as they play by the rules (they won’t) and it doesn’t turn into a PR disaster for the company (it will).

As fandom moves out of the margins—as fan writers grow up and gain access to the keys of the media kingdom—it becomes harder to make the case for fannish marginality as a cornerstone of fan studies. The lines between canon and affirmational fandom and transformational fandom, never all that firm to begin with, are collapsing all over the place.

    2) “It’s the study of how people interact with things they like.”

This is my best, most common response, because it encompasses a wide range of fannish activities, from literary criticism to cosplay, and the other person does not need to ask follow-up questions in order to feel they have understood my answer. But I’m also unhappily aware that things they like is an imperfect descriptor. I like the Captain America movie trilogy enough to want more time with those characters, yet not so much that I wouldn’t prefer to spend my weekends reading fics about Sam Wilson, the obviously best Avenger (do not @ me). If there’s one thing transformative fandom knows how to do, it’s love a thing while wanting it to be better.

Anthony Mackie

Anthony Mackie’s character in the Marvel Extended Universe, “The Falcon.”

Even so, this response gets at the scope of what fan studies is becoming. The differences between types of fandom don’t hold up to much scrutiny if you take the patriarchy out of the equation. (Which, can we just do that? Would it be okay to just topple it already?) As Kavita Mudan Finn and Jessica McCall note,

In a world of undead authors and readers unsure of their own critical authority, fanfiction provides a unique avenue in which to actively undercut the positivism of traditional approaches to interpretation. [ ((Finn, Kavita Mudan and Jessica McCall. “Exit, Pursued by a Fan: Shakespeare, Fandom, and the Lure of the Alternate Universe.” Critical Survey 28, no. 2 (Summer 2016): 27–38.))]

The difference between a solid meta and a piece of literary criticism is gender, class, money, access; but both arise from the writer’s desire to engage with, grapple with, a piece of work that they like and find interesting.

    3) “It examines how people participate in the things they care about, and especially how they resist and rework those things.”

Or, the slightly more detailed version of #2. I like to follow this up with the example of pro football fans’ responses to NFL players protesting police brutality during the national anthem (including Eric Reid, who’s out of LSU!). I use this example because I’m from South Louisiana and we have a brand to maintain; because it’s a situation that a lot of people know a little about; and because I like to shake up the idea (that other disciplines have) that fan studies only cares about girly stuff. Or to put it the other way around, I like to get my girly-stuff-fan-studies cooties all over everything else.

Kaepernick kneeling

Colin Kaepernick (right) and Eric Reid kneeling during the national anthem in a stadium filled with fans.

As with all my other answers, this one dissatisfies me. I am interested in fandom-as-resistance, but I am also aware that fannish resistance in one area is no protection against fannish prejudice in another. [ (( Do yourself a favor and follow Stitch’s Media Mix for consistently insightful critiques of fandom racism.))] To return to the Captain America example, just toddle over to AO3 dot org and you will find a wealth, a cornucopia, of fic that reimagines Captain America as queer. But if you desire to read stories starring Sam Wilson, the obviously best Avenger (yeah, I’m doubling down on this), you will find yourself wading through a lot, a lot, of stories in which Sam Wilson is only there to provide emotional support to the white Avengers.

    4) “It’s a subdiscipline of [insert field here].”

No matter what I put inside those brackets, I can’t help feeling that I’ve told a filthy lie. At the recent Fan Studies Network–North America conference, discussion turned to making more space for fan studies within the Society for Cinema and Media Studies. Well and good as far as it goes, but a literary fandom scholar pointed out that they live under the umbrella of English departments, and don’t have access to SCMS events and resources. Liking things is not confined to a single academic field, not media studies or communications or literary studies, which makes it tricky to find a disciplinary definition for fan studies.

I suspect, though, that the discipline’s liminal status within the academy has given it some of the same strengths that outsiderhood has given to fandom. While literature and film and cultural studies gatekeepers weren’t watching, students who grew up in fandom crept into their departments and started chipping away at the distinctions between the serious (bell hooks, Theodor Adorno) and the decidedly unserious (Johnlock conspiracy theories, Teen Wolf ABO fanfic). Standing within fan studies and surveying the terrain, it seems impossible that fan studies won’t have its hooks into every university department in a few years’ time.

Because the true answer I want to give, when someone asks me to define fan studies, is one that I’ve never actually used:

    5) “It’s the field that’s going to remake the Humanities.”

Image Credits:
1. A picture of the Marvel Cosplay meet-up taken at San Diego Comic Con in 2013.
2. Anthony Mackie’s character in the Marvel Extended Universe, “The Falcon.”
3. Colin Kaepernick (right) and Eric Reid kneeling during the national anthem in a stadium filled with fans.




Comics ⟷ Media: What’s a Comic Book Fan Worth?
Benjamin Woo / Carleton University

Sea Monkeys

Amazing Live Sea-Monkeys (Caricatures Shown Not Intended to Depict Artemia Salina)

In our age of massively marketed transmedial mega-franchises, fans are routinely portrayed as holders of uniquely valuable symbolic capital. Entertainment reporters cover the Comic Con beat and trawl social media for some indication of whether “the fans” will bestow their blessing on the latest round of blockbusters. As both reliable consumers and enthusiastic brand ambassadors, they are no longer poachers stealing textual pleasures out from under producers’ noses: they are the quarry.

Given the vital role intellectual property derived from comic books plays in Hollywood today, we might well expect their fans to be the most prized game of all. But, while superhero characters are more central to popular culture than perhaps ever before, comic books themselves and the practices that make up comic-book fandom clearly haven’t been mainstream for a long time. As a result, it is not clear how valuable comics fans actually are to the media conglomerates.

When I returned to reading periodical comic books after a long time as a trade-waiter, I was struck by the advertising, which is routinely cut from collected editions. There was so much of it and to so little purpose. I perceived a contradiction between how we talk about the value of fans and how companies talk to us through these promotional paratexts.

According to surveys conducted when comic books were still “new media,” virtually all children read comic books regularly. [ ((Zorbaugh, Harvey. 1944. “The Comics—There They Stand!” Journal of Educational Sociology 18: 197-98.))] Sales peaked in 1952, the year when American comic-book publishers sold a billion issues, [ ((Gabilliet, Jean-Paul. 2010. Of Comics and Men: A Cultural History of American Comic Books. Translated by Bart Beaty and Nick Nguyen. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi.))] and we know anecdotally that a single copy would likely circulate among multiple young readers. This was all prior to marketers’ recognition of children’s influence on household product choices, and now-classic ads for Charles Atlas’s physical culture program, x-ray glasses, and the like point towards an understanding of comic book readers as a massive audience of children who were able to exercise some agency in the marketplace but had very little individual purchasing power—the perfect consumers, in other words, for a packet of freeze-dried brine shrimp and a cheap, plastic aquarium.

Compared with the children of the 1940s and ’50s, the average comic book reader of today is older and has more disposable income. Internal research on DC Comics buyers conducted in 2011 found most were white men between the ages of 25 and 44 who made an above-average income. This ought to be a highly desirable demographic, but an exploratory examination of the ads in one year’s worth of an ordinary DC Comics series suggests otherwise.

New Super-Man

Bernard Chang variant cover to New Super-Man 19 © 2018 DC Comics

New Super-Man (re-titled New Super-Man and the Justice League of China with issue 20) was created and is written by the award-winning cartoonist, former Library of Congress Ambassador for Young People’s Literature and MacArthur “Genius,” Gene Luen Yang, who is best-known for the graphic novel American Born Chinese. The series stars Kong Kenan, a brash Shanghainese teenager who receives powers thanks to a qi-transplant from Superman. He and his compatriots in the Justice League of China eventually break with their government sponsors and strike out as independent heroes.

Although significant as an American comic series foregrounding Asian characters, New Super-Man is unremarkable in terms of sales. I just so happened to have a complete run to hand for this exercise. The January 2018 issue sold just over 10,000 copies to comic book stores according to John Jackson Miller’s monthly sales estimates at Comichron.com. Thirteen other DC series were in that ten to nineteen thousand sales band that month. I counted the pages of advertising, including “editorial” paratexts that were obviously promotional in nature, over the series’ most recent twelve issues (nos. 11–22):

Chart

Advertisements in New Super-Man / New Super-Man and the Justice League of China, nos. 11–22, coded by the author (don’t @ me)

There were, in total, 178 pages of advertising, or slightly less than fifteen pages per issue. For context, a typical DC comic book costs US$3.99 (I pay about $6 in Canada after taxes) and contains a twenty-page story. As we can see, the single largest category is the eighty pages of advertising (just over six per issue, on average) devoted to promoting other comic books and graphic novels. Of course, this is almost exclusively for comics published by DC and its imprints—the one exception being an all-ages graphic novel from Scholastic.

Just under two pages in the average issue were used to advertise adaptations of DC Comics characters and properties in other media, including films like Justice League, video games like Injustice 2, and even novelizations of the CW television series The Flash and Supergirl. Slightly less space was devoted to selling character merchandise, including action figures and statuettes produced by DC Collectibles and t-shirts produced under licence by Graffiti Designs. Slightly less again promoted comics-related goods and services such as back-issue dealers, conventions, and the Kubert School; these ads typically use a comic book–inspired aesthetic, and several actually feature art of DC characters.

The second-largest category is a catch-all for “other” products, which comprised forty pages of advertising. Notably, most were for Warner Bros. media products, including TV networks and programs, films, and video games produced by other units within the Warners family. A further nine ads (in red in the figure above) had some kind of tie-in to DC Comics, such as a Snickers campaign featuring an apparent attack by the homicidal Gorilla Grodd that turns out to just be a hangry teenager or a curious Green Lantern / Colonel Sanders team-up comic. Across the twelve issues of New Super-Man / New Super-Man and the Justice League of China I examined, only a handful—a campaign for Steve Jackson Games’ Munchkin and a single page of advertising for Schick razors—weren’t to some extent in-house ads.

Scan

Ads for Snickers (left) and Kentucky Fried Chicken (right) featuring DC Comics promotional tie-ins

So, while comic book fans seem to be very useful subjects within the Warner Bros. entertainment conglomerate in much the way Eileen Meehan argued Star Trek fans served as backstop consumers for Paramount, DC does not seem able to convince advertisers of their value. [ ((Meehan, Eileen R. 2000. “Leisure or Labor?: Fan Ethnography and Political Economy.” In Consuming Audiences? Production and Reception in Media Research, edited by Ingunn Hagen and Janet Wasko, 71–92. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press.))] Of course, advertising is in crisis across virtually all media, but it is nonetheless striking that comic book fans, constructed by so much industry discourse as the ideal consumer of convergence culture, garner so little attention from major retailers, car companies, telecommunications providers, and other top advertisers. While much more research is obviously needed on the financial arrangements that result in this situation, it seems to lend credence to the hypothesis that comic book publishers are principally “licence farms” for transmedia IP. [ ((Rogers, Mark C. 1999. “Licensing Farming and the American Comic Book Industry.” International Journal of Comic Art 1 (2): 132–42.))] The comic books themselves are, at the level of corporate strategy, almost an afterthought, and their readers are worth about $3.99.

As this is my final column for Flow this year, I want to take a moment to thank the editors for the invitation to contribute. I’ve really appreciated the opportunity to bring comics studies and media studies into dialogue in this venue. In particular, Maggie Steinhauer has been helpful throughout the process, sending me due-date reminders, catching embarrassing typos, and running down alternate sources for images when they disappeared from the web. 🙏

Image Credits:
1. Amazing Live Sea-Monkeys (Caricatures Shown Not Intended to Depict Artemia Salina),”
2. Bernard Chang variant cover to New Super-Man 19 © 2018 DC Comics
3. Advertisements in New Super-Man / New Super-Man and the Justice League of China, nos. 11–22, coded by the author (don’t @ me) (author’s screen grab)
4. Ads for Snickers (left) and Kentucky Fried Chicken (right) featuring DC Comics promotional tie-ins scanned by the author (scan from author’s collection)

Please feel free to comment.