Fandom, Entitlement and Toxicity

By Hampus Eckerman: On the second day of the Dublin 2019 Worldcon, I went to a panel with the promising name of “With fans like these, who needs enemies?” I hadn’t really read the description, instead going by the idea that it might have something to do with fans sucking the energy out of convention organizers, whether caused by anger, entitlement or a sincere wish to help. Instead it was about how fans made life miserable for creators with George Lucas and Star Wars fandom as the prime example. Most of the panel was about the big media phenomena in SFF, Star Wars, Star Trek and GoT, but there was also an interesting discussion on why Doctor Who fandom hadn’t reached the same levels of toxicity.

And it made me think. Think of my own reactions to changes. To the anger. Resentment. And how I both could understand and be aghast over reactions from fans.

My first understanding of my own potential for toxicity was with the infamous Spider-Man storyline “One More Day”. For you that have never heard of it, the basic plot is as follows: Spider-Man married Mary Jane in 1987. This changed the dynamics of the comic. There was no longer the possibility to add soap elements of romance to the story, Spider-Man being too much of Goody Two-Shoes to be unfaithful. Killing Mary Jane would have caused an outrage, a divorce would still have left the dynamic. And that was not the only problem. Spider-Man had given up his secret identity in the Civil War-storyline, thus even more limiting the possibilities for writing a traditional story. So the decision was made in 2007, some 20 years later, to make a drastic change: Mephisto would for some flimsy reason magic Spider-Man so he wasn’t married, his identity had never been revealed, and a lot of stuff was retconned for no apparent reason, such as Harry Osbourne being alive again.

I remember the enormous *anger* I felt at the time. It felt like they were spitting in my face. And that is where I understood how much of my love for Spider-Man was connected to the accumulation of knowledge. The true nerdhood, to spend an enormous amount of time and money to build up expertise in an obscure subject that most people would most likely have a more casual relationship to. I had read all the Spider-Man that had been published in Sweden. Many American comics too. I had bought all the old comics that were published before I was born. I knew my Spider-Man. Storylines. Villains. I didn’t only have favourite comics, I had favourite panels. Favourite lines.

And suddenly, this knowledge and time investment was rendered obsolete. It no longer mattered. Things I had painstakingly learned over time no longer had happened. People suddenly lived again with no explanation and there would never be an explanation. I had no longer any idea of how much of my knowledge that was useless or how much was still in play. It was *worse* than any reboot in DC, because then I knew everything started from the beginning (except for Batman, because he was too popular). Now I just had no idea.

This was when Twitter was still in its early childhood, before artists and creators had become accessible. I think I would have been one of those sending angry and outraged tweets at Marvel or artists otherwise. Because I felt disrespected. Slapped in the face. I tried to read Spider-Man afterwards, but the joy was out of it. Some 3-4 issues later I quit entirely. And with quitting Spider-Man, I also started to quit other Marvel comics. And DC. In a way, it changed my whole relationship to comics.

* * *

Afterwards, I can see that most of it was a healthy reaction. I quit reading. I didn’t continue, becoming more and more discontent, feeling more sidelined or out of step with the Marvel universe. Instead I found other things to read. Other books. Graphic Novels. Took a step away from superheroes. Thank god I had never been one of those comic book readers that was totally focused on Marvel or DC. My main interest had always been in the broader comic world.

But still remembering that feeling of righteous anger, I have an understanding of what other comic fans feel when they feel slighted or disrespected. And while I think most peoples’ reactions will be somewhat like mine, a quick anger that then passes to something else, there will of course always be the small minority with less control of their feelings and frustrations that will take everything a step further.

But that was of course not my only insight in toxicity with regards to myself. I remember a flatmate inviting her friend to a visit. The flatmate was also a comic nerd, so I remember starting to talk about comics, trying to see what we had in common, what likes we both shared, on what level we could discuss. Until she asked if I was interrogating her. And that was a clear wake-up call. What I was doing was in practice seen as if I was trying to find out if she was a “fake geek girl”, that toxic concept where only women are questioned about their statuses as geeks or nerds. I stopped at once. I can’t remember if I apologized or grumbled something, but I didn’t dare to talk more about comics then. We did talk about other nerdy things afterwards, but then I was much more careful to not spout out questions, instead trying to listen more.

A third insight was only this year while watching first Captain Marvel and then Avengers: End Game. The sudden understanding that I didn’t really get any pleasure out of these movies. I was never that much of a fan of action movies and that is much of what the Marvel movies are. I wasn’t watching them as much out of enjoyment as I was out of addiction. I was watching them as a completionist, wanting to learn all the details, again building up an expertise. But building up that expertise also forced me to spend time on things that I didn’t really like. Often sitting there bored while Captain Marvel was having another uninteresting fight, waiting for it to stop to at least get a bit of plot or dialogue.

Reading articles about fans making petitions, starting online campaigns, attacking and harassing creators, making demands on how comics should be made, I think I’ve started to understand where these fans are coming from. And I think it is something that is not only connected to fandom, to the works we love, but to a whole slew of other things. Thinking of nerds as addicts puts things in a different perspective. Not only as addicts but as persons who come to identify themselves as, let’s use a grandiose expression, Keepers of Knowledge. People who have for 10-20 years built up a knowledge about a subject, are addicted to add to this knowledge, but suddenly recognize that they don’t enjoy it anymore. And the frustration of needing to do things *they don’t like* just to feed the addiction. Not only that. People fearing change because it is possible that they will not like this new thing and what is their patiently learned knowledge worth then?

* * *

Myself, I walked away from Spider-Man and Marvel. They didn’t fit my needs anymore and I moved on. Toxicity, I feel, is for those that can’t move on. But I feel it is good to admit that I myself have these feelings, because that makes it possible for me to recognize them before I grow angry enough. Recognize the pattern in myself and thus being able to also see the flaws it is built on. So when I get my *get of my lawn!*-moments, I can hopefully moderate my reactions a bit.

Perhaps that is my best advice to myself. When I and my friends aren’t the youngest in the park anymore and the lousy kids haven’t got the simple decency to play Motörhead, Slayer or AC/DC on their boom boxes anymore, instead listening to K-pop and talking about their last posting on Booktube – then I do not really have to complain about them not getting off my lawn. Because it is a public park. And Motörhead still plays louder than everybody else.

Whether people like it or not.

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18 thoughts on “Fandom, Entitlement and Toxicity

  1. What JJ said – thank you for an insightful piece.
    I do think that a key moment for many people is when they have to confront the fact that whatever they are a fan of isn’t “their” property – it is created (and owned) by someone else. So when that someone else decides to change something, it feels as though you haven’t been consulted about it. And that’s painful. And some people react to it better than others.

    I like the addict analogy (or, indeed, accurate diagnosis!) very much.

  2. I’ll add my ditto to the others who have called this insightful, this really spoke to me and made me reflect on my inner nerd/grognard.

  3. What I find interesting in myself (and I genuinely don’t know if this is an “only me” thing, or a general thing) is that I can have a deep knowledge of a thing, while at the same time have an emotional detachment from “the thing”.

    So if “the thing” changes to something I no longer like, I might feel some regret that something I used to like is no longer the thing I fell in love with. maybe even sorrow. But, it is also something I can do nothing about, so railing at the universe at large won’t help (nor, I guess, railing at smaller pieces of the universe that may have creative control of the thing).

    I don’t know if this is just ennui, a shocking display of adulthood (I think we should all call such displays “acts of adultery”, just to weird language some more) or a weird mental quirk.

  4. Really good piece. This made me raise my eyebrows though:

    “there was also an interesting discussion on why Doctor Who fandom hadn’t reached the same levels of toxicity.”

    Who fandom has some of the worst and nastiest aspects to it. Some corners of really deeply entrenched toxicity.

  5. Camestros says correctly Who fandom has some of the worst and nastiest aspects to it. Some corners of really deeply entrenched toxicity.

    The bitter, fanantic hatred expressed towards the Thirteeenth Doctor’s gender proves the male fandom has rivalled the Rabid Puppies for its outright lies including that the ratings had plunged through the floor when in fact they had in fact greatly increased during her time as the Doctor.

    Their newest lie is that she has resigned as has the showrunner.

  6. I’m not part of any of the Star Trek/Dr. Who/Star Wars-fandoms, so can’t compare them. I only know that they acknowledged the misogynist attacks against the Thirteenth Doctor, but had an interesting conversation around it that I promptly forgot (because not my Fandom).

  7. Hampus, good topic(s), good write-up.

    Two quick anecdotals (rather than go long here):

    o DC’s 1985-1986 CRISIS OF INFINITE EARTHS worked hard to do clean-up “on-stage.” (I didn’t agree with some of the underlying reasoning, but that’s not the point here.) Then (assuming I’m right here) John Byrne agreed to come over to DC, and boom! between his THE MAN OF STEEL and LEGENDS, much of the hard work of CoIE was, um, well, ignored. Not to mention the “no Superboy => no Legion of Superheroes.” Yeah, this was, ahem, finessed eventually using the Pocket Universe, but count me among the irked/annoyed fans.

    o One of the things I love about Geoff Johns (also Mark Waid, Alan Moore, Grant Morrison and others, but I’ve got specific examples in mind here) is bringing back “dead” or otherwise off-the-table characters WITHIN continuity, rather than pulling a retcon, reboot, or other stunt. E.g., Bringing back Hal Jordan/Green Lantern, in 2004/2005, in GREEN LANTERN: REBIRTH… and then again with Barry Allen in his 2009 Flash REBIRTH.

  8. Daniel, swedish publishing made Crisis of Infinite earth have a different impact on me. For marvel, Sweden published what might best be called compilations of comics. An issuel of Spider-Man was 64 pages without any ads. Mostly it took the story line directly from sequential comics, but if needed, it could take two pages from another comic (in cross-overs) to make sure we had all necessary information. For the bigger cross-overs, we had comics of 128 pages which were compilations with relevant pages picked from a lot of different Marvel Comics. So I do know them quite well (before I quit).

    DC Comics were published a bit differently. More or less, cross-overs weren’t published at all. I just noticed that suddenly the stories had restarted with Superman and Batman not knowing each other. Legion of Super-Heroes had stopped being published in 1982 I think. Then we got L.E.G.I.O.N in 1989, again with no explanation of what happened to the old one. It wasn’t until a few years later I got 4-5 bookshelves with american comics for free that I started to read up on old stories including Crisis of Infinite-Earth and understood what had happened.

  9. @ Hampus Eckerman:

    IIRC, the DC “larger scale” things were what went into, um, Gigant (I think)? Not helped by the fact that most Marvel and DC published in Sweden actually went through the same editorial staff, for quite a long time. But, but, I probably stopped buying both Marvel and DC titles somewhen around 1986-1987, I think.

  10. Ingvar, it was a bit more complicated than that. Semic owned the rights to DC since 1976, but didn’t get the rights to Marvel until 1984. Before that, Atlantic owned the rights to Marvel. However, for some reason Semic created a company named Satellitförlaget to handle the Marvel property. The DC comics didn’t move there until in 1988. How much an overlap in staff there was between 1984 and 1988, I can’t say.

  11. @ Hampus: Certainly, Cristian Hammarström was editor for both in that trime period (as “Super-Cristian” on the DC side, and as “Marvel-Cristian” on the Marvel side).

    Further than that, I am actually on hazy ground.

  12. Thanks Hampus – you gave me a lot of food for thought here.

    I had a slow disengage from superhero comics. The last one that I gave up was The Avengers, when they retconned Wanda and Vision’s children out of existence. I didn’t mind that as I had always thought they were a mistake story-wise as they didn’t add anything interesting to the characters. But they decided that the children had never existed but had been illusions created by Wanda’s magic because her fragile feminine mind couldn’t accept the idea that she and Vision couldn’t have kids. When she realizes this, she goes completely insane and becomes a villain. If that story were printed now, I might have shared some very unkind words on social media before I walked away. I’m not angry about it anymore but I could have spit fire over it then.

  13. Thanks for this. Some really interesting observations and analysis, even if I don’t necessarily don’t agree with them all. Will have to mull over it a bit more, and you’ve certainly identified some important pieces of understanding the “toxic fandom” puzzle.

  14. Thanks for this, Hampus. One More Day made me angry too but I didn’t really examine that anger for a long time afterwards but I eventually got over it. As you say, toxicity can fulminate when people can’t get over things.

  15. I gave up on comics back in 1971 when all the kryptonite on Earth magically changed into iron. I was just 12, but that broke my suspension of disbelief enough that I lost my taste for any of the DC or Marvel comics. (And it wasn’t even a retcon!) I didn’t hate the people making the comics, though; I just figured I’d outgrown them.

    I read them some more in college because I had friends who were into them, but it just wasn’t the same. I did see that they weren’t just for kids, but they were never for me again.

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