I love comic books. There are a lot reasons for that. Part of it is the fact that I believe they function as a sort of American mythology, while part of it is that they’re an amazing form of serialised fiction. The enthusiasm of those who read comics is also a factor – the fact that there’s somebody who is thinking so thoroughly about just about any issues ever published, that there’s a wealth of viewpoints and opinions and discussions to be found, and a million different ways of examining the medium with people who share a common interest. I think there’s something wonderful about that, and I think that’s one of the joys of writing at a site like this, with people who know far more about comics than I do, and can express themselves far more eloquently.
Another interesting attribute of comic book fandom is that there’s a much lesser divide between the creators and the consumers than one traditionally finds in film or television. Twitter is full of fans bantering back and forth with creators, and the publishers seem to make a conscious effort to engage and discuss with fans – despite what some might argue. The editors, writers and artists of the two major companies frequently give interviews and solicit questions, they talk with fans at conventions and use various forms of social media to interact. It’s a very wonderful thing about comics, and I think that sometimes we take it for granted.
That said, every once in a while something happens that illustrates the inevitable: whenever somebody opens themselves up, somebody will take advantage and ruin it for everybody else. The week before last, Amazing Spider-Man writer Dan Slott shut down his FormSpring account, which he had been using to banter back and forth with fans. He wrote an open letter explaining why he had done so, and it deserves to be read.
In that open letter, Slott documents a wealth of abuse he received for daring to try to engage with readers, including people maliciously spoiling The Avengers for him, and also posting his personal phone number on-line. That is terrifying, to be honest. And, using the completely anonymous and unaccountable method of internet communication, a bunch of fans who presumably took exception to something Slott had written in one of his books, had tried to maliciously ruin the guy’s life. To state it a bit clearer: because somebody didn’t like something Dan Slott had written in a comic book about a completely fictional character, they took it upon themselves to attack him in the real world.
To be fair, Slott has had a bit of controversy before when he replied to a commentator blasting him anonymously, attacking his motivation for writing the book. While I actually think Slott was entirely morally justified in responding to the guy’s almost-libelous claim, there were very obvious PR ramifications. After all, it’s probably bad form for a creator to swear at a fan, even if the fan started the argument. It still seems unfair that Slott should be punished for trying to engage with readers and fans in a relatively open and transparent manner.
Of course, the internet makes such abuse understandable. If anybody ever wondered who they were in the dark, the relative anonymity that the internet affords an answer to that particular question. And it isn’t necessarily pretty. Similar to Plato’s Ring of Gyges, this phenomenon is known as the “online disinhibition effect.” The idea is that if a person believes there are no social consequences for acting like a complete sociopath, then they are more likely to act like a complete sociopath. That’s a pretty depressing thought, but sadly it makes a lot of a sense.
I honestly believe that ordinary decent fans consciously outnumber those sorts of people by a ration of thousands-to-one. I don’t let this reality damage my opinion of people who honestly just really care about the comics they read and the characters they follow. However, all it takes is one person to sour that relationship. I don’t care if you like Dan Slott’s writing or not. I don’t care if you think he’s the best thing ever to happen to Spider-Man or if you believe that he’s doing irreparable damage to the corporate icon. If you don’t like what he’s doing, stop buying the comic. Maybe, if you really don’t like what he’s doing, write a polite letter about it; maybe write a well-thought-out blog post.
Nothing gives a comic book fan the excuse to threaten, bully, cajole, insult or attempt to intimidate a writer. They don’t owe you anything. They provide a service, you take it or you leave it. You don’t own Dan Slott or Grant Morrison or Brian Michael Bendis or anybody else writing anything. As Neil Gaiman once thoughtfully put it about Game of Thrones, “George R.R. Martin is not your bitch.” Swap it out for any other creator, and it makes just as much sense.
It’s ironic, in a world where so many fans are so quick to agitate about the ownership of various characters, that they seem convinced that they are the true owners. In a way they are. I have my own version of Batman, in my head, informed by my own reading and my own favourite stories. Many people have their own takes on iconic characters, tucked away inside their heads. However, that doesn’t obligate comics to conform to your version of particular characters.
Just because Brian Michael Bendis’ version of Moon Knight doesn’t synch up with yours doesn’t mean that he should immediately be dropped from the book or fired – it just means that take on Moon Knight is not for you. Go buy another comic, or read back issues, or do something more constructive than wishing ill on a guy who just happened to write a comic in a way that doesn’t match your expectations. That stuff is toxic.
And, you know what, it means that this relationship between fans and creators gets toxic. It doesn’t matter that the good apples outnumber the extremists to an nth degree, because those extremists are so loud and so vocal about their own selfish preconceptions that they drown out the fans who do appreciate the openness and transparency that communication with these professionals offers.
Sometimes I can’t help but wonder if it might be healthier if comic creators pulled back. I mean, I don’t want it to be the case. I’ve had some very nice interactions with writers, and it’d be a shame to lose that, to be honest. However, I can’t help but wonder if it wouldn’t be better for all involved if there was a firmer delineation between those creating the product and those consuming it. It might ease some of the entitlement concerns, if the more extreme fans didn’t feel like they had 24-7 access to various creators to whine and moan.
Still, it’d be a shame to lose the relationship that exists now, the sense of a much tighter relationship than filmmakers or television producers share with their audiences. However, incidents like those with Dan Slott can’t help but feel like evidence that such a relationship is unsustainable. I’m amazed this hasn’t been a bigger story on the various fan sites and blogs out there, but maybe it doesn’t say anything especially good about us fans.