Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Biting the hand

You'd think it was the absolute first lesson in marketing: be nice to your customer. And yet somehow this basic message seems to have escaped the comics industry (genre TV has the same issue), which often seems to go out of its way to insult its core audience.

They seem to have forgotten that comics are no longer picked up by casual readers and the main support of the industry are the hardcore fans. Oh, they might show up at conventions, set up message boards to communicate with the fans, and respond to their questions as though they really cared what we think, and they'd be delighted to flog us any kind of merchandise they can think of, but how are comics fans actually portrayed in the comics themselves?

At best they are the socially inept comic relief or the geeky tech who can fix the hero's computer. At worst they are the sad, annoying, obsessive losers who have no life and no girlfriend. Because they are almost always male, too.

Is this any way to treat the people who pay your bills?

Sure, there are extreme elements in fandom, the same as in any other social grouping, but somehow it's always these types that turn up in comics. Never the regular people with rounded lives for whom an interest in comics is one of a variety of activities. And conversely we rarely get to see people with any other kind of obsession (not counting the villains whose whole purpose for existance seems to be making trouble for the hero)

Don't you feel insulted?

They've worked it out in Japan. For years now they have presented images of the geek as hero, the nerd as object of desire. There's everything from Read or Die where women with great psychic power are also obsessive book collectors, Oh My Goddess where the socially inept guy is surrounded by beautiful goddesses, to the non-fantasy Genshiken, which follows the lives of a group of anime/manga fans. In each of these some fun is made of the obsessive fannish nature, but in a sympathetic, kindly way that is balanced by the depth of the characterisation. Plus of course these are the heroes of the stories, rather than the comedy sidekick.

Isn't it about time American publishers learned this lesson?


Richard said...

This is something that's always bothered me. It shows up in other media as well. Outside of comics my favorite example to cite, because it's so high-profile, is the fanboy geek character in Galaxy Quest who is incapable of distinguishing between real life and his favorite tv show. I've known Trek fans of every stripe, and their distinguishing trait is not that they believe the show is reality, but that they know all too well it isn't. Some people get so heavily into escapism because they have some really terrible things to escape from.

A side note on that word: some people use "escapism" as an insult...but as C.S. Lewis pointed out, "Who are the people most opposed to escape? Jailors!"

Like virulent homophobes who loathe their own homosexual impulses, the worst insults against comics fans are perpetrated by creators who are desperately afraid of being identified with fans: our lives may revolve around these stupid characters and we may keep track of all this minutiae about their histories...but we don't, you know, actually care about them! Fans are the dark evil they fear in themselves and try to suppress. And a lot of fans seem to share that self-loathing, to judge from the hundreds of "here's what's wrong with comics fans, they care about things I think are unseemly to care about" essays I see written by fanboys every year on comics blogs and review sites.

Marionette said...

I completely agree with your assessment. The big difference with comics is that it is explicitly attacking its own audience.

Galaxy Quest did it to a degree, but that's a one off movie that was making fun of everything associated with Star Trek and focussing much more heavily on the bad behaviour and attitudes of the cast than the fans.

I can't think of another situation where the venom is so specifically targeted at the products' own customers.

Conversely, CSI has done several genre related episodes that are generally sympathetic.

Tom Foss said...

I think it's because the readers are already meant to identify with the heroes. Including the geek stereotype, I think, is typically so that the reader can laugh at how ridiculous that character is--after all, the reader isn't that pathetic. Including the fanboy stereotype in the adolescent power fantasy of superhero comics just makes that stereotype look that much more fantastical.

Except in She-Hulk, where they're around as a meta-commentary on fandom.

American comcis learned the geek-as-hero lesson decades ago. Most notably in a little character called Spider-Man, but also in the outcast X-Men and the legions of scientists-in-spandex that littered the Silver Age. Even Captain America began as the sort of 98-pound weakling that the Charles Atlas ads appealed to. One might even make the case that being tongue-tied, bad with women, super-intelligent, and mild-mannered, are traits that the average geek would identify with.

I don't feel insulted. Comics have pandered to the "fanboy" since before there was such a thing. It's only recently (unless you count Jimmy Olsen, I suppose) that the nerd characters have had literal representation.

Anonymous said...

I think it's a sort of conscious attempt at being vaguely self-deprecating. Like, "Well, I'd be inclined to write this nerd as a great guy who's just misunderstood and ends up with a beautiful girlfriend and so on, so I'd better not do that." Like portraying the comic fans in too good a light would just be seen as pandering.

Of course, we can't rule out genuine geek self-loathing. We turn on each other easily. (c.f. Furries)