I think of myself as a New Yorker. I was born and raised on the Lower East Side, and New York is still "The City" to me, with a definite article and no need to specify what city I mean. So you can imagine that it came as a bit of a shock when I realized, during my visit home this Christmas, that I have now spent more than a quarter of my life in the United Kingdom.
Being a certain sort of New York expatriate, The New York Times is an important part of how I hold on to my city. It's not just that it keeps me up to date on events back home; the experience of reading the paper, with its familiar style, perspective, and cast of regular contributors is a direct link to the days when I would read the paper on the train on the way to school (there's a trick to folding it so that it doesn't get in everyone's way), and worked on crossword puzzles between classes.
Despite my diligent attempts to keep up with both the Times and with news articles that are relevant to this dissertation, I totally managed to miss this article when it was published. "A Superhero Who Looks Like My Son" is the story of a father (Chris Huntington) who tried to share the comic books of his youth with his son (Dagim, adopted from Ethiopia), only to have Dagim reject them because he could not identify with the square-jawed, WASP-y heroes of the golden and silver age of comics. It was only when Marvel introduced Miles Morales, a 13-year-old boy of African-American and Latino descent, as the new Spider-Man in its Ultimates universe (a well-developed but parallel continuity to the core Marvel universe) that his son was able to attach to the idea of comics and superheroes.
Though neither father nor son is involved in organized fandom, they both serve to illustrate some of the most important reasons that fandom exists, and why it takes the form it does.
There are two parts to Huntington's experience, as he relates it. Comics were an important part of his childhood; superheroes taught him that anything was possible, and they informed his experience of what it means to be an American. That's a normal part of media consumption, whether you're involved in fandom or not - people don't just take in stories, we make them a part of our lives; to a certain extent, we use them to alter our understanding of ourselves and our experience of the world, or as sources of strength and inspiration to make our lives better. We'll be coming back to this theme a lot, but I recommend Fiske (2001) on active audiences and, of course, Jenkins (1992) on audience adaptation and appropriation of stories and media.
Superheroes taught Huntington to believe in infinite possibilities, but they touch other people's lives in different ways depending on individual experiences and needs. To name just a few of the more prominent examples: Oracle, in her pre-reboot wheelchair, and Iron Man, with his weak heart and fragile body, have helped many people cope with disability, long term illness, and chronic pain; Spider-Man has been an inspiration for generations of children who were bullied for their intelligence or social awkwardness; and of course the X-Men have long been a metaphor for experiences of marginalization, discrimination, or alienation in all their forms.
This behavior is not unique to superhero stories; D'Acci's Defining Women: Television and the Case of Cagney & Lacey (1994) is about how Cagney & Lacey fans in the late 1980s used the show (about two female cops) as a lens to explore, discuss, and redefine what it meant to be women, to be feminine, to be tough and competent at traditionally male roles. Like Huntington, most of D'Acci's informants were not involved in any form of organized fandom; they just liked the show and talked about it with their friends who were also fans. Despite this absence of organized activity, Cagney & Lacey helped them cope with their changing roles in an era where both media representation and social expectations of women were changing rapidly. The characters could be used as models for figuring out what a modern woman could be, of how other people might balance femininity and assertiveness. The show also provided a safe set of collective examples for discussing those issues: instead of drawing personal and perhaps painful or embarrassing experiences from their own lives, they and their friends could talk about how the show had handled particular themes.
Nor, in fact, is this practice unique to fiction. Fiske (1989) discusses how Madonna fans used the singer - both her life and her art - as inspiration to take control of their sexuality, or to empower them in social contexts. I'm sure there are dozens of other examples of art, music, or celebrity playing similar roles in people's lives (and I invite you to share them). This phenomenon isn't even always relevant to positive traits; since starting this research, I've spoken to a number of people who draw on Severus Snape or Draco Malfoy, from the Harry Potter books, whenever they want to be sarcastic, biting, or generally unpleasant.
The second part of Huntington's experience is that he wanted to share it. It wasn't enough that superheroes made his life a better, larger place - he wanted to pass on those feelings to his son. What's more, he had particular expectations of how that would work, based on his own understanding of the media. He thought he could use comics to teach his child, born in Ethiopia and living in China, what it meant to be an American - or at least about America as the land of infinite possibility represented in comics. He also thought that his son, sent from world to another, would see himself in Superman, or perhaps in other heroes who were not raised by their birth parents, like Batman and Spider-Man. That desire to share - not just the media but the experience, the particular, individual ways we interpret and relate to a story - is, I think, part of the drive behind fandom.
And that brings us directly to his son's experience of the stories, and how very different they were. I don't want to talk about specific details here - not only are we talking about a child, we're talking about a person whose story we only have secondhand, through his father's eyes. So, rather than making claims about what this particular person thinks or feels, I want to talk more generally about what happens when media proves inadequate or inaccessible.
But actually, I think this post has grown long enough, and that's a matter for another day. (Link to companion post to be added later).