Comic Fan Outrage? It's Part of Being Human, Scientists Say

DC Comics June 2015 solicitations
Credit: DC Comics

As DC's Convergence finale ushered in the potential for canon stories from previously destroyed continuities, the reaction from internet comic fans was immediately positive. At the same time, Marvel was acknowledging the marriage between Spider-Man and his beloved Mary Jane — a marriage that was retconned out of Marvel's current continuity, to the disdain of many fans.

So what gives with comic book fans? With both DC and Marvel embarking on major relaunches that'll feature varying degrees of changes to iconic characters, are previous/classic verions of characters really that difficult for them to give up?

Yes, actually, they are, according Travis Langley, a psychology professor at Henderson State University who studies and writes about popular culture. As Langley describes it, the process of becoming familiar with a certain character is like making a "mental map."

"In our heads, we have our own versions of these characters and stories, our mental maps of them," Langley said. "When writers and companies make changes that don't fit our mental maps, it can be jarring to us. We either have to alter our maps or reject the new information so we can keep our maps the same."

Credit: DC Comics

As Langley explained it, when DC and Marvel changed Superman and Spider-Man's circumstances, the publishers may have been trying to attract new fans, but the changes required long-time fans to rewrite their mental map of that character, which some of them rejected.

And when those publishers acknowledge or even bring back the circumstances of the pre-existing "mental map," fans react positively. As one DC fan put it on Newsarama when DC brought back the potentially infinite Multiverse in the finale of Convergence, "I'm back because somewhere out there, there's a Superman who still wears red trunks."

The mental map in comic book fans may be even more related to continuity than it is in other fandoms. Louise Krasniewicz, a University of Pennsylvania anthropologist who studies fan culture, said the detailed knowledge of a character's history something that differentiates comic fandom.

"It seems to me that comic book fans are often very focused on one series, storyline, or character," Krasniewicz said. "They are fascinating when they know the history of a character going back decades and through different iterations, but that, in some ways, is what turns a lot of people off to comic book fandom."

Credit: Marvel Comics

Yet Krasniewicz said the sense of ownership that comic fans feel toward their favorite characters is not unique to them. In fact, it's part of being human.

"This ownership or commitment to the universe that the fandom is built around is what humans do," Krasniewicz explained. "We create these kinds of ties to real or fictional world's because that is how we make sense of the world. These commitments help us categorize and judge everything around us. It is amazing how much fictional universes can influence the everyday world."

The anger that fans voice online when changes are made is also common in other fandoms, but both Krasniewicz and Langley said it isn't something they'd blame on fandom itself.

Krasniewicz said quick, short Twitter outrage often feels more like "mob mentality" than real, overall fan reaction. "I am sure that a lot of it is done by interested individuals, but I fear that it is stoked or even invented by those interested in the publicity that any controversy brings," she said.

Langley said the Internet's combination of instant feedback and anonymity also plays a role.

"With the Internet, you can give and receive such quick feedback that you might not have any cooling down time," said Langley. "Writing a long letter by hand takes time and lets you think at greater length. The Internet lets you throw it all out there before you've had time to reflect, and then you've publicly committed to impulses you might otherwise never have shared.

"That anonymity is a two-edged sword," he said. "It can give people the freedom to share good things they might otherwise not have, but the good stuff isn't what we tend to conceal. The negative things, those can be unleashed. One person's negative impulse gets out there, affects someone else, and they affect someone, and we can see a quick escalation of things that might have died out. Sometimes it's a good thing, though. Some things need a serious push for dialogue to happen and changes to occur."

Credit: Marvel Comics
Credit: DC Comics

Yet both emphasized the Internet is positive for fan communities and the continuing discourse in popular culture.

"The sheer delight in finding someone who shares your particular or even peculiar interest in a comic book is the reward," Krasniewicz said. "Gone are the days of trying to find someone at your local shop or in school who understand the world you are immersed in."

"For all its problems, it gives people the chance to share ideas and discuss their passions even if nobody around them at home wants to get into those things," Langley said.

That "passion" may be frustrating for comic book publishers — particularly when it's fan "outrage" over changes made to a favorite character — but Krasniewicz said those types of passionate exchanges do serve a purpose.

"One of the basic concepts of anthropology is that you define your self and your group by defining who is not you: who is different, who disagrees, who insults you or embarrasses you," she said. "Conflict is one of the best ways to draw boundaries — and if this is the goal of these outrages, then I bet they are being successful at that."

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