On Being a Fan

I’ve been a fan almost as long as I’ve been alive.

From age 2, when I put on the Batman cape purchased for me by my parents so that I could play pretend, some fundamental part of my psyche has and always will be defined by the things that I love. Everything else has been malleable, but at my core, I’ve always been a fan. I’ve been a fan of DC Comics and of Godzilla. I’ve been a fan of heavy metal and Final Fantasy. I’ve seen every episode of Saturday Night Live and there’s about 160 episodes of The Simpsons that I can identify from their first 30 seconds.

Partially, it’s because these things appeal to me at some lizard brain core, I’m sure. But on a conscious level, it’s because there’s something comforting about things that don’t change. Sure, I’ve moved more times than I can count on my hands and my parents have divorced and remarried and divorced. But Batman: The Animated Series will always be the same, and the Mr. Plow song will never change. I find warmth inside the hearth that the familiar provides.

I’m a fan, which is a title that is becoming something I’m less comfortable calling myself. The recent backlash against Nick Spencer for his work on Captain America and the heavy internet backlash to Ghostbuster has unmasked the horrifying face of modern internet fandom, one that smiles until you cross it, when it becomes ready to tear your jugular open.

As always Devin Faraci explains it better than I ever could, and I was ready to write a piece echoing his. Talking about my own theories on fan engagement couched in the history of fan culture and all this stupid didactic bullshit that was me attempting to lecture from on high. Yet, as that spritely description reveals, it didn’t come together. Something bugged me about the way that I had written it. I never felt like I was really peeling back what I was trying to say.

My thesis was that fans have become increasingly entitled to works, engaging with the artist in a way that demands rather than converses, and that we need to move towards becoming critical of ourselves and our connection with works. That we don’t own anything and creators owe us nothing.

The piece was bullshit because it didn’t come from a real place. It’s bullshit because as much as I like to think myself a high-minded critic above it all, I’m not. It’s bullshit because deep down, angry fans, I get it. As much as I like to not acknowledge it, I’m one of you too, and trying to lecture you makes me a hypocrite.

A couple months back, I wrote this.

For those of you not wanting to click, it’s a piece shaking with barely contained rage at the then-recent release of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. In it, I rail against the perceived moral failing of the film to be a piece of hope and inspiration in the world and directly insult director Zack Snyder multiple times for his creative choices in the film.

Sure, I couch it in theory and politics and whatever small degree of writing skill I seem to have. But the whole piece is about what I think this movie should be and what I wanted to engage with it on and what I think Zack Snyder should have done. I come one step short of writing out my version of the film in the article (which trust me, does exist on some lonely hard drive somewhere).

As much as I would like to think otherwise, my response to Batman v Superman is no different than this video from James Rolfe about his refusal to review the upcoming Ghostbusters because it doesn’t live up to his standards and his ideal of what Ghostbusters 3 should have been.

In both cases, it’s fan entitlement. The idea that if media doesn’t live up to individual standards, that it must be railed against and crushed and then rewritten to go along with those individual stands. It’s wrong, because it presumes that the fan is the arbiter of art, the patron, and the creator is simply a menu for them to order off of. This is the death of art, where it compromise rather than vision.

My anger comes from no better a place than anything Devin rails against in his piece, or that Rolfe expresses.

I’ll take one All-Star-Superman Superman with a side of Batman: The Animated Series Batman, please. What? You don’t have it. THEN FUCK YOU!”

– Me, somewhere in my brain

So, why? What makes me feel this way? What makes fandom act this way?

Is it just that the modern internet has broken down the barriers between art and artist? Now anyone can express their feelings to a musician they love, a director they hate, or a painter to which they feel indifferent?
Not necessarily, though that is a huge part. It becomes easier to access and it therefore becomes easier to demand. But I don’t think that’s it. So many of these angry fans existed in fan communities before the barriers were broken down.

Including myself. I’ve been in fan forums since at least 2002. I remember the first debates about the organic webshooters in Spider-Man, I actually remember the internet backlash to Heath Ledger Joker, and hell, I remember when X-Men 2 looked like the best we were ever gonna get. Debates were just as fierce, and just as entitled back then, though I’ll certainly say it’s allowed the growing cancer in fandom to become malignant.

The first cells were there back then though. I think it’s due to nostalgia. Actually, something even more powerful. Fandom isn’t just nostalgia, it’s idealistic perfection. The way we so often engage isn’t just with love. It’s something similar to a toxic first relationship, where we lash out against anyone who challenges it and feel it so deeply and so passionately that we can’t see around it.

Fandom is love of the perfect moment, it’s the idea that the thing we love represents an ideal time, a conception that we don’t want shattered because it’s warm and familiar and ultimately comfortable. The anger is never at the thing itself, it’s anger that we’ve had our ideal shattered. That someone has changed what we hold at the core of our identity, trying to change us. That’s the root of every lashback against bad reviews, every screed against a change we don’t agree with.

It’s the anger that they aren’t the Ghostbusters we grew up with. It’s the anger that Captain America is now a Nazi. It’s the anger that something doesn’t represent us on screen.

It’s the anger that the ideal moment that I had in my head of two heroes that represented everything mythologically to me came shattering down. It’s the anger that, in a time where my father is so glazed over mentally that I could barely see his face change during my graduation, my ideal fantasy of excitedly discussing with my dad this wonderful and amazing thing that he had first introduced to me came crashing down. I lashed out because Batman v Superman dared to not to be what I wanted it to be.

I don’t feel wrong about what I said about it critically. Every bit of it holds and then some. But my emotion comes from a wrong place, that I demanded Batman v Superman give me what I want and only what I want. It’s the most toxic strain in fandom right now, and I can’t allow myself to let it become a part of me. I don’t own Batman, I don’t own Superman.

I can’t control others’ reactions. But I can control my own. I promise that I will do everything I can to be critical about my fandom and the way that I engage with art. I know that I don’t own any work of art that I didn’t make, the only thing I can do is champion what deserves it and criticize what needs it. It’s understanding that as a critic I’m telling my story, not my demands.

I don’t know if being a fan is fixable. It’s possibly too far gone for that. And I know I will slip, I think this may be too central to how fans engage now. The damage is done. All I can do, all anyone can do, is try to rebuild.

Love is not ownership. It is engagement. Never let it become anything else.