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I’m not as involved as I was and I miss it, but it can’t be forced. It’s a combination of things; I wrote myself out of Buffy, Stargate and then The Sentinel; when you’ve written hundreds of fics based on a set amount of episodes, eventually you run out of ideas or just feel you’ve said all you want to say. But nothing has piqued my interest the way those shows did. […]
Add that to the slowly shrinking pool of friends on LJ as people leave for other sites, and I feel that my door into fandom has narrowed to a crack. I can still get through, I still belong in there — but it’s somewhere I visit, not somewhere I live.
Happy Free Comic Book Day! Here in Columbus, Ohio, the day has been a huge success. The comic I was most excited about, The Guild: “Beach’d,” was awesome, and the event at which I acquired said comic was surprisingly pleasant. I am an impatient person, and I tend to avoid crowds and long lines, but, for free comics, I figured I could give it a shot. I will never understand people who are energized rather than drained by events such as Comic-Con, or its academic complement, the Society for Cinema and Media Studies annual conference, but this year’s Free Comic Book Day (FCBD) has given me a taste of the particular pleasure of convening with other fans in person.
My girlfriend and I arrived at the Laughing Ogre comic book shop here in Columbus around lunchtime, and we saw a line out of the store and several friendly, costumed superheroes. Amused, we joined the line, and were heartily welcomed by a man dressed as Superman, who, along with a little girl who was likely his daughter, and who was dressed as Supergirl, entertained the waiting comic book fans. Behind us stood a man and a woman, the latter of whom Superman asked if she’d been “dragged along” to the event. She said she hadn’t, and Superman seemed pleased that they were a comics-reading duo, rather than a fanboy-plus-support person. This was my first FCBD, so I can’t speak for the crowd in past years, but I imagine that Superman’s experience had been to notice particular demographic changes throughout the recent history of the event. Feeling moved by this public assessment of each fan’s authority, I planned a speech about how I was just here for Buffy, fictional feminist role model, and The Guild, authored by real life role model Felicia Day. Nobody asked, and so I didn’t get to give my speech, but it gave me some pleasure to know that I could share it with you in this venue later.
Normally, when I go to the Laughing Ogre, it’s on a Wednesday at 10 a.m. Twice a month, I make the trek to purchase my new Buffy comic (Buffy Season Nine one visit, and Angel and Faith the next), and I’m usually one of only a few people there. However, the staff always greets me kindly, and, knowing what I’m looking for, they never fail to tease me that Buffy Season Nine has been cancelled. I got the same personal greeting today, but I got the further pleasure of seeing some of the rest of the store’s clientele, and hence, some of the rest of Columbus’s comic book-reading community. There were a lot of children, for example, who I assume are in school on Wednesday mornings, and the store had prepared well for this, setting up superhero face painting, as well as photo opportunities with the costumed superheroes. Additionally, the staff members in charge of the free comics tables had divided up the comics nicely, explaining to children, parents, and those of us who are neither, which comics were intended for which audiences. The idea of the separation was not one of censorship, but rather one of clarity, helping visitors to find what they were looking for. In front of me was a kid of indeterminate age (perhaps a savvier observer of people could have determined it, but I couldn’t), who expressed interest in a non-fiction meta comic intended for adults, and he was invited to take it if he wished, but warned that it did not contain a story with action, but rather was more of a history. This interaction reminded me of one of the things I like most about comics, namely, the medium’s flexibility, and its fans’ desire to educate new fans about the form’s many histories and pleasures.
The free comic I was most anxious to read, The Guild: “Beach’d,” was, as I mentioned, an absolute delight, although this review admittedly comes from a reader who has adored every single installment of The Guild‘s transmedia universe, and a reader who feels that The Guild: Fawkes comic must have been created as a personal gift. But I feel like this free comic embodies Felicia Day’s mission beautifully for more reasons than my personal enjoyment of this latest extension of The Guild storyworld. The decision to package it with the Buffy comic was wise, as Buffy fans are likely to be familiar with Felicia Day, and might take this opportunity to acquaint themselves with The Guild, her best-executed project to date. Perhaps some of them watched the first few episodes back when they first rolled out, but forgot to keep up with the series. Others might have seen the music videos, but not realized that they were meaningfully attached to an increasingly complex and impressively fleshed out narrative. The Guild: “Beach’d” embodies the greatest pleasures of the series in an easily-digestible format. On its title page, we are reacquainted with all five of the show’s main characters, as well as their in-game avatars. This page showcases the adeptness with which The Guild comics represent the game/life balance as experienced by each of these characters: we see that Codex, Day’s character, responds as viscerally to violence in- and out of game, because she has an uneasy constitution and a low threshold for stimulation. By contrast, Tink, played by Amy Okuda in the series, can happily drink a soda out of game, while attacking brutally in-game. The language of comics works so well for this series, and I love the way this particular comic, offered to us as a free invitation to explore the series’s current stage of development, speaks so easily to a concern central to online fandom. It’s so funny to get up in the morning, walk four and a half miles to a comic book shop, wait in line with strangers who share only my anticipation for free comics, and then be transported back into the storyworld that feels like home. Henry Jenkins once described fandom as a weekend-only world, and, while it’s come a long way since then, my particular Saturday nevertheless revealed a kinship with that utopian idea.
Twice this week, the mainstream media has turned its attention to issues I normally encounter only within fandom discussions. In the first instance, the latest issue of Entertainment Weekly features an article about shippers, authored by Jeff Jensen. In the second instance, I was surprised to learn that issue #6 of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season 9 Comics had, within three days of its publication, generated fourteen responses from mainstream media sources, including The Guardian and USA Today. Oddly, the shipper piece focuses mostly on shippers as target market, although the author both gets in his dig about shippers being “TV’s weirdest fans,” and also cites scholars who point to the social subversion that has animated many ship-driven fan cultures. By contrast the Buffy coverage focuses almost entirely on the plot development as a feminist response to the current political climate in the United States, and spends little time justifying its reporters’ attention to the cult television (and now comics) icon.
It turns out that, although fannish behavior is generally understood in the mainstream media as mere excess, fans do, increasingly, matter in at least two situations: when we distill cultural consumption trends for cultural producers, and thereby constitute a target demographic, and when our beloved source material turns out to bring newly-layered perspectives to real political issues, thus leading commentators to visit, or at least imagine a visit to, our world. The latter version of fandom on the front pages gives us more credit, but it is also more potentially volatile. It’s exciting to be a part of the “comics fans welcoming the development”(link), but it’s scary to know that so much of what one holds dear can simultaneously be presented to a careless and unforgiving public. Could I handle (and here comes the spoiler alert for the current Buffyverse development) a public trashing of the Buffy comics and of a woman’s reproductive rights on the same day? Add to that the reversion of shipping to its earlier meaning, of human labor facilitating the transfer of resources and capital, and it all starts to sound pretty overwhelming.
But, you might counter, that day is every day. It’s not as though the Buffy comics are any kind of critical darling of any mainstream reviewing sphere, and reproductive rights are rarely afforded unqualified support outside feminist-identified media outlets. As Mark Greif has argued in his n+1 piece, On Repressive Sentimentalism, in much of public conversation, “safe medical abortion, a fundamental social good in any sexually egalitarian society, an invention to be celebrated like the polio vaccine, must disguise itself as everything but what it is—the freedom from involuntary motherhood, owed to any woman young or old, to let her shape a life equal in freedom to those of men.” Whether or not one personally agrees with the entirety of Greif’s statement, and it happens that I do without reservations, the fact that the conversation has been forced into sentimental terrain improper to policy discussion is indisputable. Should I, then, be so surprised that the comments section on The Guardian article about Buffy’s hypothetical abortion contains hostility, both to abortion, and to the Buffy comics, as well as a particular contempt for their shared page space in this instance? Of course not, but that doesn’t mean that the intensity of my emotional response is without important context.
Fandom, as the EW article makes clear, is, for many of us, a space in which to explore desire, including its enactments and their concomitant consequences, beyond the constraints of those social worlds we otherwise inhabit, circumscribed as they are by such external factors as geographic location. This is not to deny that fandom itself is volatile, in its own way, already — fandom, too, is a world inhabited by human beings and therefore all the messiness of human communication. However, its volatility is different from the often-predictable kind of the public sphere, the kind that can have so many long, unproductive conversations about reproductive rights. In fandom, however, sentimentality is given its own space, and given the freedom to flourish according to the trajectories of individuals and specific sub-groups of fans, so that it doesn’t (in the best of times) seep into conversations that are actually about something else entirely, without first making its presence known. Abortion is something of a limit case for the roped-off sphere of sentimentality, hence my anticipation of emotional upheaval of unpredictable proportions at this latest development.
As Joss Whedon, creator of the Buffyverse well knows, popular culture has an incredible power to inspire meaningful conversation about important issues, particularly when there is a visible, engaged and savvy fanbase following each new development with a critical but generous sensibility. His choice to go public about his own approval of Buffy’s decision to get an abortion was not made randomly, or, I don’t think, as a cynical attempt to make money. There are much easier ways for him to make money than by temporarily drumming up interest in an installment of the ninth season of a long-arc serial. To be clear, this isn’t to say that I think that the comics belong on the same playing field as fanworks — they are a for-profit enterprise, and they engage regularly in various kinds of sensationalist marketing, and their authors deserve many of the serious criticism they’ve received from fans. However, I think that there is a serious distinction to be made between sensationalist marketing and an incitement to public conversation about a currently-contentious political issue, particularly one which lies at the center of the feminism that has, since the beginning, informed the concept of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
In a moment in which fans are being noticed more and more by the mainstream media, in more and less exploitative ways, I think it’s important that we register these opportunities to take note of the differences between the conversations we’re able to have with one another, and the conversations that happen next to us, and, if only tangentially, about us. I am a Buffy comics fan, and I am excited about this most recent development. I’m so excited about it that I’m reading comments sections in The Guardian that I know will break my heart. But I know that I want the conversation to be happening, and I have hope that even 10% of the joy that is the intersection of Buffy and feminism will somehow seep into it. Shipping, to unite my two threads, might still strike many as akin to a million schoolgirl crushes, transcribed onto a notebook during study hall. But if it is more than that — if it constitutes a veritable reconsideration of how relationships are structured within complex social worlds, then the possibility of abortion starts to look less like a topical news item, and more like a social reality worth incorporating into the unfolding canon of any story that wishes to speak directly to a contemporary audience.