Anatomy Of A Fan
By John Byrne
Last time, class, we talked about the Wrong Kind of Comic Fan. Today, we're going to discuss some of the more subtle and insidious effects that mentality can have on the way a Fan perceives --- not quite possible in this case to say "enjoys" --- the comicbooks he reads.
During the five minutes I was writing The Hulk (don't ask), I scripted a sequence in which Bruce Banner, staying at a rooming house in a small town, awakes one morning to find half the house and most of the town has been leveled by the Hulk. This scene was singled out by the more harsh critics of the work. "Yeah, like he'd come back, change into Banner, put on his jammies and go to bed. . .right!"
At the time, this comment struck me as very, very odd. I mean, well, yeah! Of course he wouldn't do that! Surely, this would have to be a clue that something was amiss? Surely? Surely? Hello? Beuller?
Apparently not. And, as I thought about it, I began to get a sense of just what was going on in the minds of those fans who made the complaint. Set against other complaints (not directed against me alone), I saw there was a pattern forming, and it took a shape something like this:
Many fans have been reading comics for a long, long time. Too long, some might argue, but setting aside that point for now, the net result of this long period of emersion is this: these fans have committed a whole lot of comicbook "history" to memory. (By "history" I do not mean the history of the industry, of course. I mean the internal "continuity" of the stories. If more of these fans understood better the actual History of the Industry, there might be less confusion on their parts.) They have at their mental fingertips all kinds of minutia that, for the most part, the average Pro does not. They have sifted and sorted through all kinds of conflicting and contradictory "data", and, at least in their own minds, have found a way to reconcile most of it. (Much like Ned Flanders, on The Simpsons.)
Fine and dan-diddly-andy --- but here's where the problem kicks in. Once someone becomes an "expert" in a field, any field, he needs to be very careful. Experts can, without even noticing, become less concerned with advancing human knowledge than they are with preserving the area of their expertise. So it is with these fans. When something is introduced that is unfamiliar to them, it is not greeted, as one would hope, with "Hey! Cool! New stuff!" It is greeted with fear and suspicion. It is "wrong". (I recently read a long and scathing review of Roger Stern's and my work on Lost Generation. The fan in question hated, hated, hated Lost Gen --- not so much because he could find anything in particular bad about it, but because it was Stuff He Did Not Know. It impinged upon his area of "expertise". And, so, it was "wrong". The repeated phrase was "why was this never mentioned before?" I was reminded of the fans who wrote in protest of Man Of Steel, asking is this was what Jerry Seigel and Joe Shuster had "planned"!!)
This mentality manifests every time some alteration (subtle or otherwise) happens in comics. "If I did not already know this, it is wrong!" Now, maybe I, and others of my "generation" have an advantage here, since we were present for the "birth" of the "Marvel Universe" and for most of the changes and additions to the "DC Universe" through the late 50s and early 60s. Since it was all new to us, there was really not a whole lot that could be wrong.
To be fair, we were a lot more forgiving. Most of us didn't even know that Stan and Jack's mechanism for returning Captain America to Marvel contradicted his publishing history of a decade earlier. And, if we had, we would not have minded overmuch. There were those who minded very much, of course. They were the ones who sought to "explain" the contradictions, who could not accept a neat little tale like "The Flash of Two Worlds" as nothing more than what it was, and who therefore had to dig and scratch and. . . . Well, you know. In a way, they were the prototypes of the fans of which I write here. In fact, they encouraged the fans of which I write here! (The contradictory nature of this mentality is perhaps best illustrated by one of the most strident detractors of Man of Steel and the whole Superman relaunch. Now deceased, this guy never stopped complaining about the "changes" wrought by MOS and the following Superman stories --- yet he insisted the "best" period for Superman was the Weisinger period, during which editor Mort Weisinger overturned pretty much everything that had previously been established about Superman! For many such "fans", as I have noted elsewhere, the problem with "changes" begins only from the point at which they started reading! Changes made before that --- if they are even aware they are changes, as with Cap --- are retconned into respectability.)
Another example from my own career: When I was starting up on X-Men: The Hidden Years, I knew one of the things a lot of fans would want to see was some kind of intersection between the original X-Men and the (not so) new X-Men. In fact, I wanted it, too, to give a kind of retroactive credibility-link to XHY that might be missing for newer readers who were unfamiliar with the original X-Men, and their place in the canon. So I cast about for the one "new" X-Man who could most likely fit the need, and decided on Ororro. To be doubly sure, I went into a couple of X-Men message boards and posed the question: is there any reason Ororro could not have met the original X-Men before Giant-Sized X-Men 1? Mostly, the answer was "no, no reason". Those who gave it serious thought could not come up with any reason the characters could not have met, especially given the tightly controlled circumstances under which I intended the event to occur: only Hank and Jean would actually meet Ororro. Many even expressed the opinion that this would be Really Cool!
But there were one or two who cried foul, before and after the book came out. Why? "Because this has never been mentioned before!" Or the variant: "Because Jean and Ororro didn't behave like they knew each other in GSX-M1!" The latter was easy to dismiss, of course. There is a lapse of many hours between GS1 and X-MEN 94 (when the regular title resumed), and there was lots of time for Jean and Ororro to have a "reunion" off-panel. The first argument was harder to deal with, though. "It's never been mentioned before" is something it would never have occurred to me to say when I was reading Marvel and DC comics as a kid. It was all so new pretty much nothing had been "mentioned before". But with all this continuity dragging behind them, modern comics (at least as perceived by some fans) have become much like Marley's Ghost, weighed down by chains forged from his old sins. So a particular kind of fan can complain when Lost Generation presents a slice of Marvel history he didn't already have committed to memory, or XHY presents a "first meeting" he didn't already know about. (Interestingly, when I had Moira MacTaggert and Muir Island appear in XHY it seemed no one so much as blinked. Moira, you see, had already been installed retroactively into the X-Men lore --- by Chris and me, in fact --- and at a time when no one complained about things that "hadn't been mentioned before".)
It's a recent phenomenon, this, spurred on to a large degree, I suspect, by the internet. When Marvel started publishing Classic X-Men, and Chris Claremont started "filling in gaps" there were few complaints. Most readers were happy to have More Stuff, and not concerned that it was stuff that was "never mentioned before". Cathode rays screens did not start flickering all over the world, as fans dissected what Chris wrote to see if it "worked". (Much of it didn't, actually, but that's another story!) Imagine, though, the almost instant stagnation if, suddenly, nothing could be mentioned in a comicbook adventure that had not previously been set in place! And think about the Marvel Universe if this were imposed retroactively. Bye-bye Cap! Bye-bye Havok! Bye-Bye Moira MacTaggert. Franklin Storm. Zenn-La. Untold Tales of Spider-Man. The Invaders. The list is very, very long!
So, to boil it all down, at the end we ask ourselves this one important question: Why are we reading comics?
Are we here, still, as I was (and as all those who grew up at the same time I did were), just for the fun of it? For the roller coaster ride?
Or are we here to turn into Bible Study Class, picking through the books in search of elements that support our firmly held beliefs about these imaginary histories, eschewing things that don't? Would we, today, greet a book like The Invaders with cries of "No! No! No! This was never mentioned before!!" Do we look at that scene in The Hulk and say "Something's going on!" or do we look at it and say "This is wrong!"?
If the answer is "B", if our immediate response to "the unknown" is "This is wrong!!" we go straight to one of the greatest problems vexing the industry today.
Think about it.