The VOICE OF FANDOM 2: Do Fans Even Know What They Want?

FACING FEAR: FEAR ITSELF Wrap-Up

For fan-targeted products from movie studios and comic book publishers, there's one question that seems to never be answered: What do fans want?

During the last few years, superhero comic publishers seem convinced that comic book fans want big, line-wide events.

From weekly comics filled with characters to huge crossover battles between heroes, the publishing schedule from Marvel and DC has often concentrated on the latest and greatest event, complete with multiple tie-ins. Marvel barely let their recent event finish before "Aftermath" books arrived and other events were planned, a practice that DC has also utilized in the past to keep event sales going.

Even DC's relaunch of its entire line could be called an "event," although the publisher has claimed it's not doing any line-wide events anytime soon. But during the next few months, everything from O.M.A.C. to Animal Man is heading toward a crossover of some type.

Yet fans tend to say they don't like events and crossover. If fans don't like them, then why do publishers keep leaning on them?

Last week, Newsarama began a series of articles we're calling, "The Voice of Fandom." In the first installment, we examined the sense of ownership that many comic fans feel for their favorite properties. Whether they're angry that Spider-Man isn't married or they're upset that Superman's origin changed, comic book fans are quick to demand what they want.

In the second part of our "Voice of Fandom" series, we ask the question: What does the Voice of Fandom say about events, and why don't comic companies listen to it?

Do Fans Even Know What They Want?

Denny O'Neil, recognized as a legend in the comic industry, said he learned during his tenure as an editor at Marvel and DC during the '80s and '90s that vocal fan opinions cannot always be trusted.

"My experience is that the more vocal of the fans did not represent very many people beyond themselves, or they didn't really know what they wanted," he said.

Tom Brevoort, the senior vice president at Marvel Comics, agreed. In fact, he said he's learned to only trust the voice of fandom that counts: where fans spend their money.

"If a particular type of story sells, if a title sells, if an artist is hot, if a writer is hot — whatever — that affects how we make the decisions that we make the next month. Not the chatter we hear," he said. "Because that chatter can't always be trusted, whether it's because it doesn't necessarily represent the audience as a whole, or because of the fact that fans often say one thing, but they do another."

So is it true? Do fans say one thing, but do another?

"In my experience, it does seem that sometimes fans don't really know what they want," said Brandon Jerwa, a comic writer who saw his Red Circle-related comics canceled after the touted "fan demand" fell through. "People say they hate this, or they hate that, but then it seems like they buy those comics anyway.

"It's funny," he added. "It's like people who post on Twitter, 'God, I hate Twitter!'"

First Anne Hathaway CATWOMAN Photo
First Anne Hathaway CATWOMAN Photo
 

Brevoort said comic fans also give Hollywood mixed signals about what they want. "There's one absolute truism, and it's been true going back to at least the '70s, which is that no matter what the first photograph released of your movie incarnation of a comic book superhero is, the hard-core audience is going to hate the costume," he said with a laugh. "I cannot remember in my experience a time when the first photograph came out of a superhero — the Spider-Man costume, the Batman costume, the Superman costume — and the hard-core fans didn't riot and go, 'Oh my God! This is horrible! This is the end of everything! The sky is falling!'

"And in a lot of those cases, that same audience really loved the film that followed," he said.

Event Fatigue

Perhaps the most concrete example of the disconnect between what fans say they want and what they buy is events.

"You can't go to any message board but to see people chattering on about how big event stories are ruining comics, and they're all terrible, and they get in the way of stuff," Brevoort said. "And 'why won't publishers stop?' And 'why won't they get away from doing this?'

"And yet, the best-selling books and the most-talked-about books are the big event stories," he said. "So the very audience that's decrying them, to some degree, is going out and reading and buying them. They're not following with their actions what they're saying with their words."

Event "fatigue" is a common complaint about comic events, with vocal bloggers often indicating that fans are "tired" of buying event comics.

Matt Sturges, a novelist and comic book writer, said he believes event fatigue is real, but he said the "tiring" effect isn't strong enough to counteract its opposing force.

"I think it can be as simple as the notion that, while we do feel fatigued from reading large crossover events, our desire to actually read them is stronger than that fatigue," Sturges said.

"Of course," he said, "if we still have that strong of a desire, then technically, we do want them."

Brevoort said he thinks fans consider big event stories to be big and important, so they want to feel connected and plugged into what's going on in the comic book universes. But he draws the line at saying fans are "forced" to buy them.

 

"They say they feel trapped and forced to buy these things, but they're really not," he said. "They're making the choice based on whatever criteria there is to buy these comics as opposed to any other comics. And consequently, the companies are tending to do more of these, because that is what the audience as a whole is actually telling them, as opposed to what some of them are telling them with their voices."

Jerwa agreed that what people say about events doesn't match what they do. "People say, 'We don't want events, we've got event fatigue,' as they're standing there with the books in their hand and paying for them. 'I can't believe, another event! Here, put these 17 books on the credit card,'" he said with a laugh.

Event Brain Science

But Sturges said this isn't something that only happens to fans. The writer said he's seen a lot of research lately that indicates this "disconnect" is the nature of human beings in general.

"Individuals often don't know what they actually want," Sturges said. "There's been a lot of brain science that's been done recently and written about in books, about how in our minds, we think we want specific things, but we don't actually want them."

According to the three psychiatrists who brought mainstream attention to detrimental depictions of the mentally ill in comics, psychological theories may help to explain comic book fans' seemingly contradictory behavior.

"The psychological concept of "cognitive dissonance" may be at play. On one hand, fans are skeptical of the continuity changes that may result from a big event. On the other hand, big events are inherently intriguing, and fans are interested to see what changes the big event brings about to their favorite characters," said Dr. Eric Bender, who's a forensic psychiatrist. "Therein lies the conflict which comprises the cognitive dissonance. An example of this would be complaining about the uniformity of 'big box' retailers but shopping there because of the convenience."

Vasilis Pozios, a psychiatrist who's also a comics fan, said a psychoanalyst might also conceptualize this "disconnect" loosely in terms of a psychological defense mechanism called "reaction formation." After all, there are few people quite as "reactive" as a vocal comic book fan.

"Through reaction formation, a person behaves in a manner that is opposite of how he or she feels in order to alleviate the anxiety of his or her true feelings," he said. "So, in the case of comic book big events, fans might agree with anti-big event sentiments posted on message boards and vow to themselves not to buy a single issue of the next big event, but walk out of their local comic shop the following Wednesday with all of the alternate-cover first issues of said big event. Another example might be someone who is a gun-control activist but is actually fascinated by gun violence."

But Praveen R. Kambam, who works with Bender and Pozios at the consulting group, Broadcast Thought, said it's probably less about the science of the mind and more about the nature of fandom itself.

"One can't deny the powerful influence of a principal element of fandom: hope," Kambam said. "Fans may speak of 'big event burnout,' but they continue to buy these books because they hope the build-up to a big event will translate into an entertaining 'payoff' in the pages of the comic and live up to the hype of the event."

The Power of the Negative

Sturges said some of the disconnect between what fans say publicly about events and what they do is also connected to the way negatives tend to overshadow positives.

"It's easy to look at the negatives of a situation — and I think we all know comic book readers are a group that are really good at finding negatives, and certainly I'm no exception to that," he said. "But just because you have a negative impression about something doesn't mean you don't have many positive impressions about the same thing."

John Jackson Miller, curator of The Comics Chronicle, thinks events can be credited with several positive trends in the comic industry that fans might not even realize. Because comics experience a sales decline each month (Miller said declines happen more than 90 percent of the time), something has to counteract that decline to keep comics growing. "The market has grown by the fact that there are new titles replacing old titles all the time, and events enlivening sales on existing titles," he said.

Miller said events also help comic book retailers get enough cash flow to try new titles later. "A big event in September can help orders for November and December," he said.

And according to Miller, that doesn't only help other superhero titles. For example, he pointed out that the first issue of Bone came out two months after Marvel sold more than 3 million copies of X-Force #1.

"Retailer cash flow makes experimentation possible — and also drives the single most important factor in how the direct market performs overall: the number of comics shops," he said. "Events are not necessarily themselves self-sustaining, but a sequence of events across multiple publishers tends to have a better track record."

Sturges said he thinks readers get something positive out of comic events, despite their complaining. "It's much easier to complain, I think, than it is to embrace the good qualities," Sturges said. "And obviously, these crossovers are powerful and meaningful and useful and entertaining, because otherwise, people wouldn't buy them."

Check back for our next installment, when we look at why die-hard comic book fans struggle with big changes and tend to overlook the addition of new concepts and characters.

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