On Among Others, CBR and fandom

I apologize for the length of time since my last substantial blog post. These things take a surprising amount of energy to write, and I feel the obligation to compose them very carefully.

The following post is just a personal rumination and not an exercise in fan studies or science fiction studies, neither of which is among my areas of expertise. However, if anyone does know of any works of fan scholarship that shed light on the topics I’m going to discuss, I’d love to hear about them.

Among Others, by Jo Walton, just won the 2012 Nebula for Best Novel, and I think the reason it won is because it spoke so directly to the type of people who were on the voting panel. As David Soyka observes: “Anyone who has sought solace in the pages of fantasy and science fiction as an escape from adolescent ennui will immediately identify with the narrator.” I want to expand on that and relate it to my own history of seeking similar relief from comic books.

The premise of this book is that, etc. Mori’s experience has much in common with my own experience at a similar age, specifically seventh to ninth grade. Mori’s problems (disability, child abuse, loss of a sister, etc.) are obviously much much worse than any problems I suffered from at that age, but what strikes a chord with me in her experience is that she has immense difficulty connecting emotionally with any of her classmates. Arlinghurst seems like an utter hellhole – it emphasizes sports much more than athletics, and all the students are either cliquey class-obsessed snobs or tormented pariahs – and in this it bears much resemblance to St. Louis Park Junior High. Not only are Mori’s fellow students uninterested in SF or fantasy, but they seem to have no intellectual curiosity of any kind, with one exception whose friendship with Mori is quickly ruined by a misunderstanding about sex. We are told that Mori is the only student who uses the library for its intended purpose. My junior high school wasn’t quite that bad, but I certainly had moments when I felt like my active interest in learning was not shared by anyone else. I distinctly remember at least one occasion when I asked a question in English class and a student in the back of the room shouted “No one cares.” (And the teacher ignored the interruption. If I’m an English teacher today, it’s despite that man’s best efforts to suck all the life out of the subject.)

The key moment in the book, for me, comes when Mori discovers the local SF book club (which she may have magically retconned into existence, but never mind that). On joining the club, she discovers people who share her interests and her intellectual curiosity, and who, crucially, are not immature teenagers but adults, or teenagers who share Mori’s precocious maturity. And these people are willing to engage with Mori as an equal. Mori writes:

When I first say something, it’s as if people don’t hear me, they can’t believe I’m saying it. Then they start to actually pay attention, they stop noticing that a teenage girl is talking and start to believe that it’s worth listening to what I’m saying. With these people, it was much less effort than normal. Pretty much from the second time I opened my mouth their expressions weren’t indulgent but attentive. I liked that” (Walton 137).

And later:

Everyone looked at Hugh, and I realized something in that moment, which is that they took him totally seriously, even though he was only fifteen. They didn’t just let him come to the meetings, they thought he could lead one. They’re the same with me, they don’t look at me as a remarkable dancing bear, they listen to what I say.”

The older members of this community accept the younger members as equals, as contributors who have something to offer, and they do their best to teach Mori and Hugh the norms of their community while also learning from them.

All of this parallels my own history of involvement in comics fandom. I started reading comics at seven or eight years old. This was in the late ’80s and early ’90s, when comics were enjoying a brief boom due to things like Image and the death of Superman, and so in elementary school I had a number of acquaintances who also read comics. Even then, though, I was much more interested in comics than any of them. For my friends comics were a casual fad, but for me they were a passion. My favorite comic characters, especially the members of the Legion of Super-Heroes, were more real to me than most of the people I knew. And I didn’t know any real people who shared this passion with me. I had no opportunity to talk about the Legion with anyone. When Tinya Wazzo died in Legionnaires Annual #2, no one shared my grief and frustration.

This started to change when I discovered the (CBR) forums. I don’t know when exactly this happened, but I won the CBR Citizen of the Month award in May 1998, and I must have been a member of the community for at least several months prior to that. Since my parents had warned me not to reveal my real name online, I called myself “Tim Drake” after a favorite comic book character who was about my age at the time. (This name was later expanded to “Sir Tim Drake” for reasons I can’t quite remember. I finally stopped using it as my CBR username earlier this year, partly because almost everyone else on CBR was using their real names by that point, and partly because I haven’t been interested in Tim Drake for many years, and I no longer wanted to be associated with a signature character of Chuck Dixon.)

Now remember, at this point I was 15 years old. Many of the people in this community were twice or three times my age. Of course since this was the Internet, they didn’t necessarily know how old I was. But as with Mori and the SF book club, they treated me like an equal. They responded intelligently to my comments and they patiently helped me expand my knowledge of comics. The fact that I could interact on an equal basis with people who were so much older than me, and knew so much more than me, did a lot for my confidence. Moreover, the anonymity of the Internet, as well as the fact that I was passionately interested in the things I was talking about, made me much less shy and awkward in online discussions than I was in real life. In Among Others, at the first book club meeting, Mori just throws herself into the conversation; she talks so much that she even worries she’s monopolizing the discussion. And then later, the school librarian, who was driving her home, comments that Mori probably doesn’t get a lot of opportunities to talk about the things she cares about. It was exactly like that for me. Given the chance to talk about comics with other people who cared about comics as much as I did, I just exploded into life. I credit CBR with making me much more confident and less awkward in real-life social situations. Sir Tim Drake was much less nervous and socially inept than Aaron Kashtan. As I grew older, I gradually learned to behave like Sir Tim Drake in real life as well as on CBR.

So Mori’s experience of finding a supportive community in fandom, and using fandom as a means of gaining confidence and maturity, certainly struck a chord with me. However, there is an important caveat here. Mori’s community includes both men and women, and her favorite authors include women like Ursula K. Le Guin, James Tiptree Jr. and Zenna Henderson. As an outsider, I have the distinct impression that science fiction fandom is quite diverse in terms of gender; obviously this was not always the case – all the women I just mentioned had to overcome a lot of institutionalized sexism – but today Dragon*Con, for example, attracts a large female audience, and the SF fan communities that were studied by authors like Henry Jenkins and Camille Bacon-Smith were primarily composed of women. Unfortunately I can’t say the same about my own fandom. At the time I discovered CBR, it was an overwhelmingly male community; there were some prominent female posters, but they stood out as exceptions to the rule. As time went on, CBR’s proportion of female posters increased. But superhero comics fandom, which is the primary constituency at CBR, is still an overwhelmingly male-dominated community, because superhero comics are primarily targeted at men. This has been made clear by several unfortunate recent incidents. Recently, a female colleague of mine suggested that if comics fans are so annoyed by the presence of Twilight fans at Comic-Con, it’s because they – we, I should say, since this annoys me too – are angry about the incursion of women and girls into this traditionally male space. I feel that my experience of growing up in and through superhero comics fandom was immensely valuable, but I’m afraid that such an experience is only available to a rather limited category of people.

All right, enough for now. Comments?