Comic book fandom. I couldn’t be much further away from this subculture, myself being from a rural area (possibly THE most rural area) in Ireland, Donegal. Not to mention I had no internet access until I was well into my teens.
But I always wondered – I always had an interest in art, I always had an interest in good storytelling and literature. Hell, I loved the old ‘70s Spiderman and Batman reruns they used to show early on weekend mornings as a kid.
It wasn’t so much a case of not wanting to immerse myself, but having a lack of access. Other than The Beano and The Dandy, I’d never seen a proper comic book in my life, let alone own one. But the curiosity was there.
And so I went to college, where the Anime and Manga Society (AMS) was knee deep in this culture, discussing really obscure comic books, Anime, Manga, comic cons, universes, Cosplay and a bunch of other stuff I’d never even heard of.
It’s intimidating; talking to people with near-encyclopaedic knowledge on a topic you know nothing about, you feel more self-conscious than a hunger striker at a super-heavyweight boxing weigh-in.
But it’s a feeling most people face when trying to get into comics, meeting the ‘comic book community’. I spoke to DCU’s incoming AMS Chair Christie McBride (No relation, I promise), and she told me all about what it was like for her as a fledgling reader.
“I got into comics in general by way of cartoons- I’d been watching animated shows on Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon and all the children’s channels since I had any kind of input on what I could watch television wise, when I realised there was more to the X-Men it just seemed natural to go get the more. With regards to manga and anime, I picked up volume 1 of Fushigi Yûgi back in 2004/5 and was almost immediately hooked.”
(For anybody that doesn’t know what Fushigi Yûgi is don’t worry, I googled it too, It’s a Japanese manga series about Four Mythical creatures, they made an Anime series of it, and it looks pretty cool!)
But it’s not all plain sailing for people who’ve developed an interest and wish to expand; it can often be hard work.
“I wrote out about the same amount of notes on the specifics of Nightcrawler’s origin as I did that year on the primary themes of To Kill a Mockingbird.”
“Gatekeeping is a huge issue; it’s a monumental concern in terms of the art form continuing in a lot of respects. If someone admits ignorance in certain circles of the comic fan community, they often risk losing some amount of respect within those same circles.
“When I was getting into comics as a teenager, I was so afraid of being “caught out” at being new that I would literally study comic wikis and forums and every trade I owned. I wrote out about the same amount of notes on the specifics of Nightcrawler’s origin as I did that year on the primary themes of To Kill a Mockingbird.”
This is an enormous amount of work put in to pursue a hobby, but that is how a hobby becomes a passion. Unfortunately though, to top this, circumstance can oblige you to ‘prove yourself’ in the eyes of some.
“I was actually quizzed fairly often about my favourite characters and various storylines, just to make sure I wasn’t a ‘Fake Geek Girl’
“There’s a sort of perception, particularly regarding girl fans (in my experience, I’d hate to suggest that there’s a universal anti-girl attitude within the geek community, I know a lot of great guys in the comic fan world) about their legitimacy and how valid their interests are. I was actually quizzed fairly often about my favourite characters and various storylines, just to make sure I wasn’t a ‘Fake Geek Girl’ which was mildly stressful to say the least.
“I think this attitude is disappearing though, people seem to be less dismissive of new fans and more welcoming. I know people appreciate it when they’re given the space to learn about something they’ve recently begun to love, so hopefully this could mark the beginning of a population growth within comic fandoms.”
It seems to be a hostile environment to enter, but a rewarding one nonetheless. Christie makes this clear when she tells me the best parts of being a comic book fan.
“For me it’s probably the people I’ve met. The community as a whole and the members of the comic book fan community that I’ve actually interacted with have been a really uplifting experience. I’ve made a lot of great friends and learnt a lot of new things.
“I also really enjoy bringing people ‘into the fold’ as it were. I love that moment of “wow, this is really good” that can come about when you show someone a comic book and it clicks for them. For me it’s hugely a collaborative experience, getting a chance to exchange ideas and viewpoints and theories. I really enjoy it.”
And this seems to be a recurring theme no matter who I ask; Like William Selby, a comic book fan from London whose passion seems to manifest itself in a more visible manner than others…
“Do I consider myself an eccentric fan? That depends on what you mean by eccentric. I wouldn’t personally, but a lot of people would say spending weeks cutting and gluing foam together to make yourself look like Iron Man is pretty eccentric.
“I’ve made a few Iron Man suits now. This one I’ve been making slowly as a personal project so it’s taken about 3 months. I can get a whole one done in under a month if needs be though; I’ve done it in the past.”
That is a colossal amount of work that begs the question; what makes someone commit themselves to a project like that? What are the motivations?
“I like to make people smile. There’s nothing like the look on someone’s face when they see a beloved character come to life. Plus who wouldn’t love the chance to be Iron Man?”
But again, I’ll have to return to the question: Can I be interested in comic books? Can I be this passionate? Could anyone else? I ask Daniel Amrhein, a comic book blogger over at http://www.JourneyintoAwesome.com. Journey into Awesome is a successful blog that currently has just short of 4000 followers. If anyone has the expertise it’s him.
Let’s transport ourselves into the realm of Mean Girls and say for example some Varsity Jock finds himself in a comic book shop – could he fall in love with the Art?
“Both get dressed up in elaborate costumes to go to events, they love stats and obscure trivia, and they love debating which team would wins in various scenarios. And of course, fantasy football is really just a pen and paper RPG for sports fans.”
“I don’t think it necessarily takes a certain type of person to get into comics. There might be certain types of people more inclined to become heavily involved in certain aspects of hobby or community, but right now there are so many different types of comics on the market that there really is something for everyone regardless of if you’re hardcore fan or casual reader.”
“The same type of person who is into sports can absolutely be into comics and vice versa. I know of plenty of people who are fans of both.
“Really, there are a ton of similarities between diehard comics and sports fans. Both get dressed up in elaborate costumes to go to events, they love stats and obscure trivia, and they love debating which team would wins in various scenarios. And of course, fantasy football is really just a pen and paper RPG for sports fans.
“Sadly, there is sometimes tension between hardcore sports fans and comic geeks.
“I’ve been going to DragonCon for several years and the weekend happens to overlap with the Chick-fil-A kick-off Game with both events being relatively close to one another. Unfortunately, some years there have been issue with a few football fans sneaking in to DragonCon and causing problems. One year it was particularly bad with them actually throwing bottles and things at the con goers.
“Of course, the vast majority of the football fans weren’t causing problems, but a few bad apples thought it would be fun to get drunk and assault the nerds in costume. The con has since doubled down on security and there haven’t been any more problems like that but it does help demonstrate some of the tension between the two groups.
“It is hypocritical for society to treat hardcore sports and hardcore comic fans differently.”
But society can do that, and has. But people are overcoming the barrier of perception bit by bit now. What does Daniel think of the barrier Christie mentioned earlier – Gatekeeping?
“Unfortunately, there are those fans that channel their passion into browbeating other fans. Women, people of colour, and LGBTQ fans are often especially singled out by ‘Gamergate’ adjacent groups and individual”
“Unfortunately, there are a lot of obstacles for people trying to get into comics right now.
“Comic fans tend to be very passionate people which can either be really amazing or really frustrating. Then a fan channels that passion into promoting the books, characters, and creators they love by sharing them with new people it’s a great thing. Unfortunately, there are those fans that channel their passion into browbeating other fans. Women, people of colour, and LGBTQ fans are often especially singled out by ‘Gamergate’ adjacent groups and individuals.
“There’s also the direct market to contend with. The direct market is a distribution method which started in the ‘70s that limits comics’ availability to be sold anywhere other than specialty comics shops. This has contributed to a gate keeping culture wherein small independent retailers control what comics are ordered and sold. This system can be especially limiting to fans or potential fans who live in smaller cities or towns without many (or any) choices in comics retailers.
“Let’s say someone who just saw the latest Marvel movie decides to checkout comics for the very first time. If their only local comic shop treats them unfairly or doesn’t adequately stock the books they’re interested in, then the potential fan is pretty much out of luck. (Thankfully, digital comics and a widening availability of trade paperbacks are starting to change this, but an unwelcoming environment at a local shop can still limit a fan’s ability to engage with the community and culture.)”
But are graphic novels and comic books really legitimate in comparison to other art forms? Could you have an issue of Spiderman gracing the halls of an art gallery alongside the likes of Picasso or Da Vinci? I spoke to RTE Radio DJ and Cultural Aficionado Rick O’Shea about their importance in art circles.
“There are pieces of art from comic books that deserve to be in art galleries. Now they probably are, and all you’ve got to do is look at somebody like Roy Lichtenstein and you know, he was one of the most famous pop culture artists of the 20th century and he made a fortune out of parodying comic book art and of taking these giant panels. I love Lichtenstein’s stuff, I went to an exhibition of his in Chicago a couple of years ago and his stuff is fantastic.
“there are elements of comic book that are beautiful in themselves and they genuinely are. I absolutely think that some of them belong in the canon of great literature.”
“And there are elements of comic book that are beautiful in themselves and they genuinely are. I absolutely think that some of them belong in the canon of great literature. I don’t think you will find a lot of people who will disagree with you if you look at the watchmen, at the v for vendettas, at the gaiman sandman, there are tons of either graphic novels that stand alone by themselves or of comic book things that belong within that genre. Look at arts people, there’s Mouse, if you want to take it out of comic books and specifically into graphic novels, or Persepolis. I think without question there are some that belong in great literature.
“I’m not sure that you know, giant comic book panels deserve to hang in the Tate modern. Maybe there are though, again I go back to the Lichtenstein thing. I don’t know. Jury’s out on that one.”
So will they make their mark in history? Could their subplots be dissected and taught in a university? I realised at some stage this year (a bit late, yes) that the basic plot for X-Men was uncannily similar to the Black Civil Rights movement in the US – Peaceful Professor X is like Martin Luther King, Violent Magneto is comparable to Malcolm X and the mutants are oppressed very similarly to black people discontented. So does Rick think they have they an important social commentary for us to observe?
“Always, and I think these days particularly much more so then when I was growing up. There were superhero comic books, those were the only ones that existed, so the only ones that you could read were Marvel’s, DC’s Superman, Batman, Spiderman, Avengers, whatever.
“I think without question that comic books deal with every possible aspect of modern social commentary”
“I think these days the nature of the comic book has grown exponentially and now covers absolutely everything so you can very easily find huge amounts of graphic novels or comic books that cover areas of social commentary that deal with areas of historical problems, and even as I mentioned, Mouse, who deals with the holocaust, or Persepolis which is all about living in Iran. I think without question that comic books deal with every possible aspect of modern social commentary; it just depends on where you find them and what you’re looking for.”
A big thanks to Rick O’Shea, Christie McBride of DCU’s Anime and Manga Society, William Selby, and Blogger Daniel Amrhein for giving me such long and comprehensive answers.
You can read the full and unadulterated interviews with each of the interviewees at the links below:
You can find out more about DCU’s Anime and Manga Society here and you might be interested to know that they run one of Ireland’s largest Comic Conventions, Eirtakon – you can see their official facebook page here here for more details on that.
If you missed the link midway through the article, Daniel Amrhein’s blog is http://www.journeyintoawesome.com.
Rick O’Shea’s book club can be found on facebook here.