Jul
27

Fan Service – Setting the Table

Posted by Jamaal Thomas on Wednesday, July 27th, 2011 at 11:10:38 AM

“Writers don’t do stories specifically to piss off fans. Writers write stories about which they feel passionate and invested. As a reader, you’re entitled to one thing and one thing only: a reading experience in exchange for your purchase. And if you like that reading experience, the expectation is that you’ll come back for more. But the audience does not and should never be in control of the stories. Writers are writers because they know how to do what audiences don’t know how to do—tell stories that affect you and move you. It’s way tougher than it looks. Storytelling isn’t a democracy, you don’t get a decision in how the stories go. All you get is your one vote, with your dollars or your feet.”

Tom Brevoort, Marvel Senior Vice President of Marvel in response to a reader question asking “why [] writers persist on doing controversial directions/stories that are disliked by fans?”

Sean Collins of Robot 6 singled this quote out as part of a growing creator backlash against ‘fan entitlement’, including some comments from Brian Lee O’Malley about George R.R. Martin’s Song of Fire and Ice series and some…interesting comments made by Grant Morrison in his new book Supergods. It’s a weird faux trend that gives creators, journalists and critics an opportunity to attack their favorite straw man – the entitled ‘bad fan’ who we all use to externalize our insecurities around comics fandom. There’s a lot to say about this trend, but let’s focus on a very basic point – the question above illustrates fan confusion, not entitlement.

There’s nothing particularly controversial about Brevoort’s response. He was simply stating a truism in the kind of brusque fake tough guy way familiar to long-time sports fans. I picture WFAN’s Mike Francesa putting Vinnie from the Bronx in his place.

One could imagine a more responsive, if somewhat simplified answer to the reader’s question – for the most part, writers of mainstream Marvel Comics don’t persist in writing books that most readers actively dislike. Marvel is your typical profit-seeking enterprise in the business of selling comic books that readers want to buy, which creates a disincentive to publish widely disliked comics. But I suspect that this reader knows this already. So, a more precise response – what makes the reader think that fans don’t like those ‘controversial’ stories? Which fans is he referring to?

A lot of fans assume that they know what fans want. It’s understandable. They’re fans. Who would know what a fan would want better than a fan? They assume that their views and preferences (and those of the other fans they know, whether in real life or on the internet) represent those of comics fandom. It’s a comforting lie. As readers of these books, we need to come to terms with the fact that we really don’t know anything about what other readers want. We can look at sales charts as an imperfect proxy for fan preferences or dredge up anecdotes about the people who frequent our local comics store or who we interact with on social media, but we’ll still be unable to identify reader preferences with any real precision. I don’t know what book this reader was referring to, but there’s a very real possibility that he’s talking about a book that has a widespread audience. The world is bigger than your store, your neighborhood, your friends list.

I know how it feels. I thought the end of Civil War was a cop-out, Secret Invasion a waste of an intriguing premise, and that One More Day was a solution to a non-existent problem. Many, if not most of my friends agreed with me – if I posted an incisively cutting comment about any of the above on Twitter, in an online conversation or in my local comic store, I’d get nothing but positive reinforcement. But my village is not the world. The truth – and granted, this is relying on the imperfect proxy of sales charts – is that all three of those books were immensely popular and in all likelihood, the majority of readers enjoyed them. It’s always dangerous to assume that we know more than we actually do, to universalize our limited experience – and that applies equally to creators who have bad interactions with misanthropic fans. A guy on a message board who’s unfairly critical of the last volume of the Scott Pilgrim series of books doesn’t represent anyone other than himself.

I guess that if I was in Brevoort’s shoes, I would’ve told the reader to chill out and to remember that the book they hate may be someone else’s favorite book. If he (or she) doesn’t like a particular book, there’s always another one that might be preferable. I know, I know, it’s more fun to mock people who don’t ask good questions.

One other thing – It’s tempting to conclude that those who disagree with you are the ‘bad fans’ – the marginalized ‘other’, those who buy comics out of a pathetic sense of obligation, or as a sad investment or because they’re obsessed completists. Those people are out there, but we all need to deal with the fact that reasonable people hold a broad range of opinions. There are people out there who don’t like King City, who didn’t think Asterios Polyp was a work of genius, who weren’t blown away by Mark Waid’s first issue of Daredevil. I think those people are mad. But that’s not really true. To paraphrase film critic Mark Kermode, other opinions are always available. More on the Great Strawman Witch Hunt of 2011 later.

Posted in Blurbs · Read more by Jamaal Thomas

2 Responses

  1. Pretty nice post. I just stumbled upon your blog and wanted to say that I’ve really enjoyed surfing around your blog posts. In any case I will be subscribing to your rss feed and I hope you write again soon!

  2. Excellent post — very well said.

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