Transcript of Miami lecture “Change the Cover”

This is the transcript of a lecture I gave on Monday as part of Miami’s Comics Scholarship Series. It’s based on my two most recent conference papers, each of which I have already posted to this blog, but it incorporates some new information. The accompanying slideshow is available here:

SLIDE 1 Let me begin by saying I’m very pleased to be here and I’m excited about this lecture series because it demonstrates that there’s significant interest in comics among Miami students and faculty. My research focuses on visual, digital and material rhetoric, with particular attention to comics. I’m currently working on a book manuscript investigating what comics can tell us about the relationship between physical and digital books. The topic I’m going to discuss in this presentation is only somewhat tangentially related to that research, but I thought it would be appropriate to discuss today because it’s something that I feel passionate about and that I’ve spent a lot of time discussing and debating on social media. And this talk is relevant to the idea of a comics scholarship lecture series because it indirectly asks what it means to be a comics scholar today, to the extent that comics scholars are also comics fans. The basic idea here is that being a comics fan today is not just a pastime but also a political activity, and I think that also applies to comics scholarship.

In this presentation I’m going to discuss recent controversies surrounding superhero comics, the Internet, and female fans, and based on these controversies I’m going to ask what it means to be a fan of comic books, specifically superhero comics, in 2015. And I’m going to address this question both from the perspective of the female and minority fans who are currently entering comics fandom in huge numbers, and from the perspective of white male fans like myself, who have traditionally been the dominant group in comic book fandom.

My approach to this topic is based on personal as well as scholarly knowledge. This paper is based on both my scholarly work and my many years of experience in organized comics fandom. I have been reading comics since I was 7 and I’ve been attending comics conventions and contributing to comics Internet forums since I was in junior high, and I’ve been studying comics academically since my sophomore year of college. And incidentally, my story is a common one among comics scholars. It’s now become common for people to come to comics studies as adults without having been comics fans earlier in life, but many comics scholars are people like me who came to comics because we’ve been reading comics our whole lives. Now as a bespectacled white dude in his 30s, I represent the stereotypical comic book fan. The standard notion in our culture is that comics fans are maladjusted adults SLIDE 2 and the comic book store is a man cave, a space where women are not welcome. I often illustrate this stereotype by showing the following clip from The Big Bang Theory. SLIDE 3 (CLIP) So the idea is when these women walk into the comic book store, everyone turns around and stares because the idea of women buying comics is just shocking and unheard of.

Now I want to clarify that this is a stereotype – it was never actually true to begin with. There have always been a significant number of women in comics fandom and there have always been comic book stores that had female employees and were welcoming to female customers. Still, there has always been some validity to this stereotype. And the most significant recent development in the commercial comics industry is that comic book companies are now trying to branch out beyond their traditional male customer base and to appeal to women and minorities and younger readers and LGBTQ readers. Over just the last couple years, the comic book marketplace has shifted seismically. The top-selling comics are no longer Batman and Superman, but comics for kids. Right now the top four books on the New York Times bestseller list of Paperback Graphic Books are Raina Telgemeier’s Smile, Drama and Sisters and Cece Bell’s El Deafo, SLIDE 4 all of which are middle grade or young adult books. Right below those are two volumes of The Walking Dead. That series is published by Image Comics, which became famous in the ‘90s for publishing sexist testosterone-laced superhero comics like Spawn and Youngblood. SLIDE 5 But Image’s publisher, Eric Stephenson, said last year that “the fastest growing demographic for Image Comics, and I’m willing to speculate, for the entire industry, is women.” At the same time, the graphic novel has attracted wide and diverse audiences and it frequently caters to people other than the stereotypical comics fan; for example, Roz Chast just won the National Book Award for her graphic novel Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant, which is about her experience taking care of her aging parents. SLIDE 6 I actually chose not to teach this book this semester because I was afraid my students would be unable to relate to the experiences it discusses. And it’s largely because of the graphic novel that comics have become popular in academia, as demonstrated by the existence of this lecture series.

Now the one genre of comics that continues to lag behind the rest of the industry in terms of its appeal to nonwhite nonmale fans is superhero comics, which traditionally the dominant genre and still known as mainstream comics. Most of the classic superheroes were created between the ‘30s and the ‘60s, at a time when the standards for diversity in media were much lower, and superhero comics today still tend to reflect those origins. SLIDE 7 Superhero comics are notorious for their sexist depictions of women; there’s a website called the Hawkeye Initiative that tries to depict the awfulness of the ways women are drawn in superhero comics by drawing male superheroes in the same ways that female superheroes are typically drawn. SLIDE 8 Superhero comics also have a problem with violence against women. In superhero comics there is a notorious recurring plot device in which female characters are killed or injured just for the purpose of advancing the character arc of the male characters with whom they are associated. This plot device is known as Women in Refrigerators, after a Green Lantern comic from the early ‘90s where Green Lantern’s girlfriend is murdered and dismembered and her body is stuffed into a refrigerator. SLIDE 9 Now the atmosphere of the comic book store often tends to reflect the male-dominated nature of the superhero genre. At many comic book stores, superheroes are still the dominant genre, and you’ll notice that in the scene from the Big Bang Theory, this is what the comic book store is primarily selling. The stereotypical comic book store is a place where men go to buy superhero comics and play Magic: The Gathering. And this is primarily the fault of Marvel and DC, which have spent the past thirty to forty years catering almost exclusively to male readers, and more recently to adult male readers in particular.

And yet female superhero fandom is a thing that exists. It’s largely a phenomenon specific to female-dominated Internet social spaces like Tumblr and formerly LiveJournal. For example, the Internet community Scans_Daily was founded in 2003 and still exists today. SLIDE 10 As the name indicates, Scans_Daily primarily shares scans of pages from superhero comics, and it has a mostly female user base. And there is a large superhero presence on Tumblr, as indicated by sites like DC Women Kicking Ass. SLIDE 11 So evidence suggests that there are women who read Marvel and DC comics and who enjoy Marvel and DC’s characters, despite these companies’ lack of support or even active discouragement of female fans. And probably these female fans are learning about comics not by walking into comic book stores and buying comic books, but by viewing comics panels that are posted on Tumblr and other social media forums. There may even be fans whose interaction with comics is only through Tumblr and not through the actual comic books. The comic book writer Gail Simone reported a conversation with another female industry professional who “said that she felt there was a growing group of fans who love the characters and love MOMENTS of stories, but don’t read the actual comics ever. She said that they will buy a CHARACTER X t-shirt in a heartbeat, but don’t own any graphic novels.They will reblog a scene they like from a comic, but never go to an actual comics shop to get that same book.”

Now what’s happened over the past couple years is that Marvel and subsequently DC have started to notice this, and have started to publish comics specifically designed to appeal to Internet female fandom. Titles marketed toward female readers have been a major part of Marvel’s recent output. Examples of this trend include Matt Fraction and David Aja’s Hawkeye, Kelly Sue DeConnick’s Ms Marvel, and more recently G. Willow Wilson’s Ms. Marvel and The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl. SLIDE 12 For example, Ms. Marvel, which I assigned in my ENG 112 class this semester, is about a teenage Pakistani Muslim girl who becomes a superhero. Marvel has also been retrofitting some of their existing titles to be more female- and minority-friendly; there is now a black Captain America and a female Thor and a female Spider-Man. SLIDE 13 If the joke in that slide doesn’t make sense, it will later. And these titles have been selling. If you look at the chart of Marvel’s best-selling digital comics from March 2015, it includes three Star Wars comics and then seven titles with female protagonists.

So Marvel has recently started to heavily cultivate female readers. Why they started doing this when they did and not before is not entirely clear to me, but a friend suggested that it may have begun with the first Thor movie when Loki was unexpectedly popular among female viewers, and I think that’s a reasonable suggestion. Marvel has been heavily pushing the character of Loki lately – a character who, incidentally, has always been a transgressor of standard gender roles – and last year’s Loki, Agent of Asgard #1 included images of Loki that were explicitly designed to titillate female readers. SLIDE 14 This sort of beefcake imagery was previously unheard of in American commercial comics.

I’m going to focus briefly on one example of a recent Marvel comic that explicitly caters to female fans: Kieron Gillen’s Young Avengers, which was published from 2013 to 2014. In a July 2013 Onion AV Club article, Oliver Sava described Young Avengers as “Tumblr bait.” He observed: “Search for “Young Avengers” on Tumblr and you’ll find a massive number of posts dedicated to Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie’s Marvel Now! series. … Every new issue of Young Avengers provides plenty of fresh fanbait ready to be shared across social media platforms. … After half a year of issues, the creative team has seen enough Tumblr posts and tweets to know what fans want to see, and the book has become part superhero story, part confluence of memes.” End quote. So this comic was specifically designed to appeal to posters on Tumblr, which tends to be a female-dominated social media space. Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie and their editors were aware of sites like Scans_Daily, and they wanted to appeal to that clientele. One way Young Avengers does this is through the use of beefcake imagery. It features a wide variety of attractive male characters drawn in a style calculated to appeal to female or gay readers, and the first issue begins with Kate Bishop, the female Hawkeye, having a one-night stand with a quote, beautiful alien boy, which shows a level of female sexual agency which is rare in American superhero comics. SLIDE 15

But another way this series tries to cultivate a female Internet-savvy audience is through its active incorporation of visual tropes derived from the Internet. And this is where this topic intersects with my current research into connections between comics and digital culture. As Oliver Sava points out, every issue of Young Avengers, starting with issue 2, begins with a recap page that’s designed to look like a Tumblr feed. SLIDE 16 Just like with actual Tumblr, there are icons on the left representing the people who are supposedly sharing each of these stories, and each of these icons represents an existing Marvel character, including J Jonah Jameson and Dr. Doom. And each of the “posts” comes with hashtags. Every other issue of the series had a similar recap page, except issue 6 which was a standalone story. And this emphasis on Internet culture also appears in other recent Marvel titles. For example, the new Pakistani-American Ms. Marvel, Kamala Khan, writes Internet fan fiction about superheroes. When she meets Wolverine, she tells him that “my Wolverine-and-Storm-in-space fanfic was the third most upvoted story on Freaking Awesome last month!” SLIDE 17 Another example of this is Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, which is written and drawn by two webcomic artists. At the bottom of every page of this comic, there’s a message that offers an ironic commentary on what’s happened on the page, which effectively serves the same purpose as alt text in webcomics. SLIDE 18 And also, Squirrel Girl’s roommate is also a fan fiction writer and she writes fanfic in which her cat becomes Mew, Cat-God of Cat-Thunder.

So Marvel has been actively attempting to attract female readers, and one way they’ve been doing so is through deliberate Internet-savviness. Marvel has been trying to show that they care about female fans and that they understand the sort of Internet culture from which these fans come to comics. And this seems to have worked. Titles like Ms Marvel and Hawkeye have been among Marvel’s top sellers, especially in digital form, which makes sense given that when buying comics digitally you can avoid the frequently sexist and unwelcoming atmosphere of the comic book store.

Conversely, since the debut of the New 52 in 2012, an event in which DC relaunched their entire line, DC seems to have been actively trying to turn away female readers. The New 52 was billed as an attempt to attract new readers but whether it was even a serious attempt in the first place is doubtful. A survey in early 2012 revealed that DC’s readership was something like 93% male, which was likely due to the company’s lack of female creators and its overly sexualized portrayals of female characters. SLIDE 19 But sometime in 2014, DC’s executives gradually realized that the company was shooting itself in the foot by ignoring female readers, and they’ve tried to address this by releasing a number of new titles specifically targeted toward women, including Gotham Academy and Harley Quinn. SLIDE 20 The flagship title of this initiative is Batgirl by Cameron Stewart, Brenden Fletcher and Babs Tarr, which is not strictly speaking a new series, but an existing series with a new creative team. And Batgirl is interesting in this context because it incorporates digital culture into its plot, to a greater extent than in any previous mainstream comic I can think of. The plot of the first issue by the new creative team revolves around a villain called Riot Black who has a computer brain and who steals Batgirl’s laptop and downloads its data into his mind so he can blackmail her. And Batgirl defeats him by tricking him into looking at a QR code which contains a virus that contaminates his mind. In her secret identity, Batgirl is a graduate student in urban geography whose research focuses on using algorithms to predict the location of future crimes, so essentially Batgirl is a super-hacker. She fights crime not only through her physical abilities but also through her command of computer technology. And the visual style of the comic reflects that. SLIDE 21 As media studies scholar Will Brooker points out in an interview on, one of the key visual devices in Batgirl is the incorporation of text messages, e-mails and social media feeds into the space of the panel. “Sometimes text messaging replaces a speech balloon, sometimes a caption, sometimes a whole frame … It also conveys the idea that our lives are made up of these various windows and panels. As we look from the world to our phone, we are in a sense living within this framework, like living in a comic book almost in its combination of words and images.” Brooker comments on how this is a weird blending of analog and digital, and the ultimate example of this is that the QR code in issue 35 is actually a real working QR code that leads to a page on DC comics’s site. SLIDE 22 So Batgirl is an interesting example of a phenomenon I’ve been discussing in other work, which is the increasing cross-contamination or mutual influence of comics and digital media. An overarching theme of my current book project is that comics are currently doing a better job than print literature of hybridizing print and digital media, and Batgirl is an example of that.

As an example of a comic that appeals to female readers through the use of references to Internet culture, Batgirl is, in my opinion, less successful than Young Avengers. One reason is because Batgirl’s incorporation of Internet culture sometimes seems overly forced; it’s like Fletcher and Stewart don’t really understand what it’s like to be a young Internet-savvy urban female intellectual, they’re just giving us their perception of what it might be like to be such a person. The other problem is that both the writers and the editors have been guilty of major miscalculations that reflect a fundamental misunderstanding of their target audience. Batgirl #37 features a villain who impersonates Batgirl in order to ruin her reputation. The issue ends with the revelation that the Batgirl impersonator is actually a man. This scene was widely viewed as transphobic. Jessica Lachenal (LASHENEL) at The Mary wrote that “this presentation of the character paints an awful picture of drag queens, trans women, and non-binary people alike. It props up the trope of the “crazy, unstable drag queen / trans woman.” SLIDE 23 And Stewart, Tarr and Fletcher were forced to issue a public apology. On the other hand, at least the Batgirl creative team has been trying to appeal to female readers, and DC has recently announced other initiatives in this direction. Later this year DC will be overhauling its entire comic book line and will be including significantly more titles by women and minority creators; for example, award-winning Asian-American graphic novelist Gene Luen Yang will be the new writer on Superman. And this past week DC announced the DC Superhero Girls product line SLIDE 24 which is designed specifically to appeal to little girls. This has been mildly controversial because it creates the impression that the rest of DC’s product line is not for girls, but again, at least it shows that DC is finally acknowledging that little girls are a potential target demographic for superhero comics.

If there is anything we can conclude from all this, it is, first, girls and women love superheroes and want to read superhero comics despite the genre’s legacy of misogyny, and second, one way that comic book companies can capture this audience is by acknowledging the existence of Internet female fandom and showing an understanding of this constituency. I think in general the superhero comics genre has made significant progress in the years since Green Lantern’s girlfriend was stuffed into a refrigerator, and female Internet fandom is a major reason why.

But now I want to turn to what we might call the dark side of these efforts to include women in superhero comics fandom. Such efforts have provoked negative reactions among the straight white men who have historically dominated superhero fandom, and as we will shortly see, Batgirl is maybe the best example of that. Across both comics and other fandoms, there has been a recent phenomenon which we might call fanboy backlash, in which the opening up of previously male-dominated fan spaces has led to harshly negative reactions from the straight white men who used to dominate these fandoms. And here I want to step away from comics for a bit and explain how this is happening on other media fandoms. The most prominent example of fanboy backlash is Gamergate, which is a movement among video game players that was supposedly created to protest conflicts of interests between female game developers and game journalists. SLIDE 25 Their slogan is “Actually it’s about ethics in games journalism,” which is what that Thor slide from before was referring to. But what Gamergate really is, in my opinion, is an organized movement to exclude women from the video game industry and video game fandom, and in order to achieve this, Gamergate supporters have employed what I would frankly describe as terrorist tactics. SLIDE 26 This sounds like hyperbole but it’s not. Last October, Anita Sarkeesian, a well-known feminist video game critic who has been a popular target of Gamergate, was forced to cancel a speech at Utah State University because of death threats. A similar example is what’s been happening in science fiction fandom. In recent years, the major awards for science fiction literature have been dominated by the work of liberal writers like John Scalzi and female and minority writers like Nnedi Okorafor and Sofia Samatar. SLIDE 27 When this started happening, certain mostly white male writers became extremely indignant that science fiction was becoming poiliticized, or rather that it was being politicized in a way they didn’t like. So they started an organized campaign known as Sad Puppies whose object was to get works by right-wing white male authors included on the ballot for the Hugo award, which is the only major science fiction and fantasy award where nominations are determined by fan voting. And this led to a competing campaign called Rabid Puppies, which was organized by Vox Day, a notorious racist and neo-Nazi. And these campaigns succeeded largely because of assistance from Gamergate. SLIDE 28 SJW, by the way, means “social justice warrior” and it’s what Gamergaters call their opponents. On the 2015 Hugo ballot, the nominees in the short fiction categories consist entirely of works nominated by Sad Puppies and Rabid Puppies, and this has led to an enormous controversy – like, several authors have withdrawn their work from the Hugo ballot because they don’t want to be associated with the Sad Puppies or the Rabid Puppies.

So across various spheres of geek culture, the move to open up these traditionally white male spaces has led to a backlash from white men who are afraid of losing their dominant position. Another way to look at this is that geek identity is historically bound up with white male identity. Being a geek or a nerd or a fan has traditionally meant being a person like me, a bespectacled athletically inept socially awkward white guy. SLIDE 29 As Dan Golding writes in the context of video games, “videogamers … developed a limited, inwards-looking perception of the world that marked them as different from everyone else. This is the gamer, an identity based on difference and separateness. When playing games was an unusual activity, this identity was constructed in order to define and unite the group … It became deeply bound up in assumptions and performances of gender and sexuality. To be a gamer was to signal a great many things, not all of which are about the actual playing of videogames.” SLIDE 30 Sorry I couldn’t find a better image for this one. And to an extent this is also true of comic book identity. In his book Comic Book Culture: Fanboys and True Believers, Matthew J. Pustz wrote that “In most cases, being a comic book fan is central to fans’ identity.” And as Pustz goes on to write, the ultimate example of this is fanboys, or “comic book readers who take what they read much too seriously.” Stereotypically, fanboys are bespectacled, acned overweight misfits who have an encyclopedic knowledge of ’60s Marvel comics but have never spoken to a woman. And this stereotype is often cited in comics themselves, such as Evan Dorkin’s Eltingville Club stories. SLIDE 31

Now Golding argues that gamer identity, as traditionally conceived, is under threat, because it’s too inflexible to survive the gaming industry’s increasing openness to female and minority and LGBTQ gamers. “When, over the last decade, the playing of videogames moved beyond the niche, the gamer identity remained fairly uniformly stagnant and immobile. Gamer identity was simply not fluid enough to apply to a broad spectrum of people. SLIDE 32 It could not meaningfully contain, for example, Candy Crush players, Proteus players, and Call of Duty players simultaneously. SLIDE 33 When videogames changed, the gamer identity did not stretch, and so it has been broken.” Thus, Golding’s article is called “The End of Gamers,” and he suggests that Gamergate is the last gasp of traditional gamer identity. Gamergate is what happens when gamers as traditionally conceived realize that the concept of gamers no longer refers exclusively to them.

So the question I want to explore in conclusion is whether this is also happening to comic book fans, and if so, what can we do about it. Is the category of “comic book fan” resilient enough to embrace people other than straight white males, or is comic fan identity going to be squeezed out of existence? My answer to that is twofold. On one hand, while comics fandom has not experienced anything quite as drastic as Gamergate or Sad Puppies, we have seen a certain backlash from misogynistic male fans who see comics as their exclusive property and who are resistant to the diversification of the medium. On the other hand, this sort of backlash has been a less significant phenomenon in comics fandom than in science fiction or video game fandom, and that’s because being a comics fan has never been synonymous with being a stereotypical fanboy. For as long as I’ve been involved with it, comics fandom has always had at least some room for people other than straight white males. There has always been a significant segment of comics fandom that wanted to expand the reach of comics, and at least in my own circles, the stereotypical fanboy has been the exception rather than the rule.

So in the first place, there clearly have been examples in which the diversification of the comics industry has led to a backlash from entitled fanboys. And these examples have mostly involved DC Comics, which, as I discussed, is the only major remaining company whose output is almost exclusively marketed toward fanboys, although that is starting to change slowly. In comics, the most obvious recent example of fanboy backlash is what happened last month with the Raphael Albuquerque’s variant cover for Batgirl #41. SLIDE 34 And I would prefer not to show this cover but I need to so that you can understand what I’m talking about. This cover is a reference to Batman: The Killing Joke, a 1988 comic book in which Batgirl is shot and paralyzed and sexually assaulted by the Joker. SLIDE 35 Albuquerque’s cover depicts Batgirl as a passive and helpless victim. And this cover was widely criticized for being totally inappropriate given the series’s emphasis on female empowerment, so DC’s decision to publish this cover was a major miscalculation, and this led to a protest campaign on Twitter using the hashtag Change the Cover, hence the title of this talk. SLIDE 36 As a result of this campaign, the artist who drew the cover asked DC to withdraw it, and DC did so. This made a lot of people very angry that DC withdrew the cover due to pressure from feminists, and they started a counter-protest campaign, Save the Cover, aimed at getting DC to reinstate the cover, and this campaign was supported by Adam Baldwin, a celebrity who is a prominent member of Gamergate. And the reason these people said they wanted DC to reinstate the cover was because of artistic freedom, even though it was the artist himself who asked for the cover to be withdrawn. In my opinion, what they were doing here was using artistic freedom as an excuse to justify their anti-feminist actions, in the same way that Gamergate appeals to ethics in games journalism. Now the Save the Cover campaign did not achieve its goal of getting the cover reinstated, but it is evidence that some people at least see comics as the private property of men, and are violently resistant to the idea that comics should be sensitive about the depiction of violence against women.

I want to mention another recent case of fanboy backlash in comics, which is relevant to me personally because it involved an online community that I was a member of for many years, and this is going to lead into my conclusion. In April of last year, Janelle Asselin wrote an article for, commonly known as CBR, in which she criticized Kenneth Rocafort’s cover for Teen Titans #1. SLIDE 38 Specifically, Asselin complained that on this cover, Wonder Girl’s proportions are totally unrealistic – she’s a teenage girl but she clearly has breast implants. And she pointed out that this sort of depiction is especially problematic because this is a Teen Titans comic, and the various Teen Titans TV shows are widely popular among teenage girls and among children ages 2 to 11, SLIDE 39 and Rocafort’s cover is specifically designed to exclude those audiences. Now Asselin was hardly saying anything controversial here. It’s pretty obvious that this cover is not only terrible but also misogynistic. And yet just for pointing out this obvious fact, she was not only criticized but threatened with rape. At the same time that she published the article, she released a survey on sexual harassment in the comics industry, which is also a significant problem, and some unfortunate trolls discovered this survey and filled it in by posting rape threats against Asselin. According to CBR proprietor Jonah Weiland, “These same “fans” found her e-mail, home address and other personal information, and used it to harass and terrorize her, including an attempted hacking of her bank account.” And according to Jonah, many of the fans in question were regular participants on the message boards, SLIDE 40 this character is the mascot of the CBR forums, and the harassment of Janelle Asselin was emblematic of an atmosphere of “a negativity and nastiness that has existed on the CBR forums for too long.” So because of this incident, he completely deleted everything on the CBR forums and restarted them from scratch with a new and much stricter moderation policy.

Now this incident is personally relevant to me because I was a member of the CBR forums for many years. I started posting on the CBR forums sometime around 1997 or 1998 when I was 14 or 15 years old. So I’ve been involved with this community for more than half my life. I was the moderator of the CBR Classic Comics forum and I used to run the annual Citizen of the Month award. I’ve gradually stopped posting at CBR because I’ve been annoyed at the way the conversation there is dominated by fanboys, although I still communicate with many of my old CBR friends via Facebook. So the Janelle Asselin incident seems like evidence that at least as far as CBR is concerned, comics fan identity has come to be defined in a way that excludes women and that emphasizes toxic masculinity.

At the same time, my experience at CBR is also what makes me hopeful about the future of comics fan identity, and it’s what makes me believe in alternative and more productive ways of being a comics fan. I started posting at CBR in the late ‘90s when I was a young teenager, and it was actually because of CBR that I gained the ability to think of being a comics fan in terms other than being a fanboy. Before I discovered CBR, most of what I knew about comics came from Wizard magazine, which was basically instrumental in defining the fanboy identity. SLIDE 41 Essentially Wizard was the comics version of Hustler. It was notorious for ridiculing women and for ignoring comics that didn’t involve superheroes. Anyway, at CBR I came into contact with comics fans who were much older and wiser than me, and these people convinced me that this way of being a comics fan was unsustainable. As long as comics were marketed purely to fanboys, comics were going to lose readership and they were ultimately going to be irrelevant, and this would be a bad thing. I think some of the people who told me this were themselves parents and were afraid that their children wouldn’t be able to grow up with comics in the same way that they did. SLIDE 42 And this experience convinced me that it was important for comics to be inclusive, that comics couldn’t continue to appeal to the same fanboy audience. I think this is fundamentally different from the Gamergate mentality, which is driven by fear that games are becoming too popular and that the gaming industry is abandoning its traditional target demographic. Thanks to CBR, I grew up with the notion that comics needs to abandon its traditional target demographic or die. And perhaps the difference here is that the popularity of games is currently at its peak whereas the popularity of comics, at least in America, peaked during the ‘40s and ‘50s and has been steadily in decline since. SLIDE 43 Among the comics fans I grew up with, there was this notion that comics is a declining art form and that traditional concepts of comics fan identity are a threat to the long-term survival of the medium. So I got this idea that in order to save comics, it was necessary to abandon fanboyism as the sole model of comics fan identity and to embrace a broader and more inclusive model of what it means to be a comics fan. According to this model, to be a comics fan is to be a lover and evangelist of the medium of comics, and to help expand the audience of the medium. And that’s what I try to do when I teach comics in first-year writing courses.

So this is a model of comics fandom that involves a certain radical openness to new audiences. And this notion of comics fandom is not just based on my personal experience; we also see it in things like Free Comic Book Day, which is coming up on Saturday, SLIDE 44 or in Michael Chabon’s 2004 Eisner Awards keynote address where he called on the industry to do a better job of appealing to children. And I believe that if comics fan identity is defined in this way rather than in terms of fanboy identity, then to return to the earlier quotation from Golding, comics fan identity can be “fluid enough to apply to a broad spectrum of people.”

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