Recently, I said that continuity has often been misused by the fans of various “geek” genres as a means of trying to control what happen within that community. You can’t change characters’ lives because continuity won’t allow it. You can’t introduce new characters who don’t specifically jive with the continuity. You can’t be a real fan unless you know all of the continuity.
It’s easy to see why our somewhat open community is so easily stigmatized as being this place full of bigots and close minded jerks. There’s controversies left and right over things that shouldn’t be very controversial. So Ultimate Comics Spider-man is a black latino kid… and…? It’s not like this fundamentally ruins the idea of a guy who crawls on walls and swings on webs. In fact, if anything, the biggest problem with Miles Morales isn’t the color of his skin but the fact he has a super power that makes him too strong.
And making Catwoman bisexual? How exactly does that ruin anything about Catwoman? I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but her underlying character trait was she doesn’t care about the societal norms around her to the point she dresses up like a cat so she can steal other people’s shit. Looking at that, being a bisexual is actually one of the most normal things she’s ever done since the character was created.
But here’s the thing… most of the angry fans know that. Most of them aren’t even that concerned with identity politics. Sure, there are very vocal outliers who are there simply to spew hate. But you know what really gets under the skin of the average comic book, scifi, or fantasy fan?
You changed it, you changed their thing, and you didn’t even ask them permission (as if you needed it)…
You’re Not The Gatekeeper
After writing the Continuity Crutch I had a brief exchange with someone about the fact letting go of continuity was necessary to avoid smothering our favorite genres. However, something occurred to me in the moment that hadn’t at the time I was writing the previous post: though letting go of continuity is the first step, there’s a lot of other steps that had to be addressed. The first, and possibly hardest, is having some of our community understand our actual place in the community rather than the place we’ve assigned ourselves. I know some people will respond to this idea negatively, but… we’re not the gatekeepers, we’re the fans, and there is a huge difference between those two.
You see, while it is entirely true that our mastery of continuity is usually some sort of status symbol in our community, there’s also another reason we’re often so attached to it (to our own detriment). The fact of the matter is, while we may call ourselves fans, a lot of our most vocal members really see themselves more as gatekeepers. We often call people who know everything about a subject an “authority” on that subject to mean they are the person with the best knowledge on it, but that title often swings both ways. Often times when someone becomes so versed in something that they know more than everyone around them, they also are given the task of telling everyone else how it’s supposed to work. In essence, while knowing random trivia doesn’t necessarily make you important to the real world, it does happen to give you the clout necessary to tell others how things are supposed to work. Someone needs to know where to start a series? Well let’s ask the guy who’s read the whole thing, he’ll be able to tell us where to start.
Frankly, even in this case, power corrupts. I wouldn’t say it’s absolute power because we’re still talking about the life and times of guys who dress up in spandex or “kevlar” that happens to look a hell of a lot like spandex. But the power is still there. You become an authority in this subject and you’re the guy who tells everyone what they need to do, what they need to read, where to start, why certain scenes are important and other scenes aren’t. And to a lot of people who are in our community, it’s kind of the one thing we really feel special about. It’s what makes us worth someone’s attention, even for a moment. That’s a hard thing to give up.
So of course, when someone from outside the community enters and they don’t recognize this strange nerd hierarchy or our supposed expertise… some people in our community try to force it on them. You’ve probably seen it before, some of you may have even done it before. You encounter someone who is brand new to the whole genre and they start to get interested in a relatively minor title (but one that happens to speak to them) and someone in your group will speak up, “but you really should have started with [x]”. It feels like a helpful piece of advice, it even sounds like it from a point, but it’s really someone deciding they’re going to make it clear to someone that they’re the ones who knows what’s best.
That’s not to say everyone who has ever made a suggestion is trying to do that. If you genuinely think someone will appreciate your recommendation because they liked something else, that really is being helpful. But where it stops being helpful and starts being about our authority is when we follow that recommendation with multiple other recommendations and label all of it as “required reading”. When we start telling people that they’re not “real geeks” if they haven’t read through [a], [b], or [c], we’re trying to force them into our hierarchy and make them recognize our “expert status”. The people doing this aren’t trying to hurt the new fan, they’re just trying to maintain what little power they actually have in the world and get the newbie to get in line. It’s a hangover from evolution, our tiny inner ape telling the new ape they need to wait their turn.
The problem is that we really don’t have the power. We aren’t the gatekeepers, we aren’t the real authorities. As a fan it’s your job to find what you like and support that thing you like, not control it. This gets away from people sometimes as the authority status they’ve nurtured starts to clash with someone who has some real authority on the subject. JJ Abrams introducing a black Stormtrooper isn’t running counter to the creator’s vision… he is the creator. You may have been on board with the franchise longer than he’s been in control of it, but he’s still in control. If a comic book writer similarly wants to change one of their characters, they’re the one who gets to make that call. And there isn’t even a need for a lorekeeper to keep the new writers, artists and creative teams in line with the philosophy of the franchise – those people already exist and they’re called editors.
What this all really means is that we as a community have to change how we respond to these moments when it goes a direction we don’t like. We need to recognize that, as the fans, our job is to choose what we like and support that while turning away from what we don’t like. I know that becomes difficult to do when something you liked changes into something you don’t, but if we’re going to be good as fans we need to realize as a culture that means we need to be able to support the genre by allowing it to grow and that, sometimes, that means it will grow away from us. Though, you’ll find that once you stop feeling a need to have it fall in line, you won’t be as bothered by the changes as much as you once were.
At least, most of you won’t…
And, don’t get me wrong, I know this sort of behavior isn’t entirely about ego. I know after you drop who knows how much money into something you feel as though you’re owed what you expect. But, for most of those situations, you spent the money on the bulk of what came before, not what comes next. When the last 15 minutes of Mass Effect 3 happened to go a direction that the fans didn’t appreciate a couple years ago, many said they had been ripped off for a few hundred dollars over the course of several years. But if you enjoyed that franchise all the way up to that last 15 minutes, didn’t you get your money’s worth up to that point? Was that money spent solely for that specific moment, or did you spend that money on the moments leading up to it?
It’s easy to lose perspective when your emotions and your funds are tied into something so closely. And, of course, because you spend that money you will feel like it wouldn’t even exist without people like you. So, naturally, if it goes a direction that you don’t want to go in, it feels as though it is destroying itself. If you’re not there to spend money on the next book, issue, film or game, who’s going to keep the thing afloat? But, maybe those changes you don’t want to happen so they won’t leave you behind are the changes that need to happen so it can go on when you eventually leave it behind.
I hate to say this, mostly because it’s somewhat melodramatic, but we’re fairly mortal and constantly getting older. Over time, our money is going to be tied into other things, other interests. We’re going to have mortgages, insurance fees, and car payments. Many of us are going to have kids to look out for. Some of us already have crippling student loan debt. And, one day, we’re going to die (unless scientists can put our minds on the internet, then we’re set for an eternity). When that happens, the creative works we love today are going to be here either still receiving new publications or acting as our time capsule to the future. The things we love are destined to outlive us by generations and we won’t be able to support them forever. We are, for all intents and purposes, just along for the ride.
So, maybe it’s time we loosen our grip on the reins and let the things we love do what they’re going to do. If they make a real mistake, maybe they’ll suffer for it, but that’s not our responsibility. Fans don’t need to be the gatekeepers, just the cheerleaders. And, of course, being a cheerleader is a lot more fun and a lot less stressful at times because, while you don’t have to worry about where it’s going, so long as you’re still rooting for your team…
You can still fuck with the fans of the other teams.