Superhero Fans Are from Mars, Venus, Krypton, and Everywhere Else

It’s the 4th of July, so here I am to discuss my ever-changing relationship with American superhero comics fandom.

I’ve been an avid comics reader since childhood, and having interacted with many fellow fans over the years, there’s one truth I’m often reminded of: there’s no one type of fan. It’s not just that Fan A might like Spider-Man and Fan B might be into Jimmy Corrigan, either. How people approach the very act of experiencing comics can be so fundamentally different that calling them both “comics fans” ends up being a gross simplification, and failing to understand that can stifle one’s own understanding of the power of comics.

I recall a conversation with someone who’s a big fan of the Batman franchise. The topic of spoilers came up, and they basically replied, “Oh, I don’t care about that”—not so much because knowing in advance what happens didn’t bother them, but because the actual story isn’t the biggest priority for them and their fandom experience. Rather, it’s the characters themselves (Bruce Wayne, Dick Grayson, Tim Drake, etc.) and the values and traits they embody in and of themselves. It’s what allows these characters to be placed into alternate-universe fanfics. It’s also what allows them to be protected, in the eyes of such fans, from bad writers and plotlines. If Batman is written to be a racist, they can remember the perfect version of him instead. Japanese manga scholar Ito Go calls this kyara: the capacity for a character to be removed from their context and still exude a sense of identity, and superheroes certainly are iconic.

I’ve noticed more and more fans like this, and I believe their passion is real and wonderful. At the same time, this is not the type of fan I grew up with, and their interactions with both one another and with their comics are not the kind I cut my teeth on. Instead, I’ve generally been more accustomed to textual analyses, plot speculation, and the classic “who would win in a fight?” I caught up with an old friend at New York Comic Con 2019 two years ago, and their explanation of the ambitious nature of Marvel’s House of X and Powers of X stood in stark relief from the Batman fan’s way.

In his book Comics and Narration, French comics scholar Thierry Groensteen writes about a generation gap he feels with younger comics fans:

“For readers of my age…comics has always meant being exposed to a certain type of fiction, divided into genres and series, and being hooked on adventure stories. It went without saying for us that comics…was a “narrative type within the narrative genre.” Of course, we have to acknowledge that comics…arouses among certain groups of younger readers different expectations…. [O]ne needs only to consider the phenomenon of “cosplay”…to realize that these young people who dress up as their favorite hero have little interest in the story—what they are seeking…is the hero or heroine with whom they identify. The emphasis is on the characters themselves, their costumes, their attributes, possibly the values that they incarnate, but not at all the context in which they appear or the adventures that they have had. The phenomenon of identification is difficult for readers of my generation to understand…[W]hat mattered to us was how they gained hero status through their actions and how they swept us up in the excitement of their adventures.”

Unlike Groensteen, I feel I can relate to both his perspective and the “cosplayers” he finds inherently difficult to connect with. Still, I myself have noticed that when I talk with people from different groups about comics, the gears in my head turn in ways to accommodate the type of fan I’m talking to. Understanding their priorities also means understanding the kinds of questions that will bear fruitful responses. I don’t mean that I am constantly making intensely conscious decisions as to what to say or ask, but that talking with the Batman fan and the HoXPoX fan almost requires a different frame of mind.

While we all have our own ways and preferences, I think failing (or refusing) to acknowledge these differences creates tension among comics fans. People can even like the same comic but have very different ways of deriving their enjoyment. Trying to reconcile them (in the sense of trying to judge then with the same parameters) may be a fool’s errand. Recognizing that perspectives can be incongruous but appreciating them all the same lends strength to comics fandom as a whole, and all its possibilities.