I've said before I'm not much of a webcomics forum-participator. I've joined a number of them, and occasionally I read through them, but often the participants on a given strip's forum (or LJ-Community, or what have you) represent the Fandom more than the fans of that strip, and that's generally not how I want to spend my time1.
The implication in the last paragraph is correct, by the way. There is a difference between the fans of a strip and the Fandom, The fans of the strip are the people who read the strip and like it. Period. It doesn't take much to be a fan.
A strip's Fandom are those people who community-build around their shared appreciation of the strip. In the old days, they made fan clubs. These days, they join forums (Forums? Fora? It feels like there should be some kind of funky plural on that word) and LJs, spread the word, and organize events around the strip.
Let's use as an example the venerable Marmaduke. You remember Marmaduke, don't you? Yes, the one with the dog. A Marmaduke fan (there must be some) likes to read Marmaduke. They find the dog amusing. They might even clip their favorite Marmadukes out of the paper (or print them off the webfeed -- which I just discovered is here. I am now as scared as I have ever been) and tape them up over the ancient and brittle Dilbert cartoons in their cubicle, back from the days when Dilbert was funny.
The Marmaduke fandom, on the other hand, spends a significant amount of time on the Marmaduke forum (the Marmaduchy, let's call it). They have many different discussions on Marmaduke, and on things that have nothing to do with Marmaduke -- to the point that the Marmaduke forum moderators had to create a specific topic for off-topic posts, and have to kick folks there whenever they stray. They trade LJ icons and forum avatars based on Marmaduke art. They collect pithy Marmaduke sayings. They affirm each other and their common love of Marmaduke, and they find close friends through Marmaduke -- friends that mean a lot to them far beyond Marmaduke. This is what the Marmaduke Fandom has given them, and it means everything to them.
The idea, for many of the Marmaducets and duchesses (so clever, those Marmaduke fans -- the guys naming themselves after currency and the girls making a delightful play on Marmaduke's name), is not so much the individual Marmaduke strips themselves, but the zeitgeist of all that is Marmaduke. It's the attitude. It's how Marmaduke makes them feel, and how much they can amplify that feeling in the company of others. It can be terrifically empowering and it can be terrifically satisfying. Right here, in this little community on the internet, Marmaduke is the coolest thing around, and by showing your love for Marmaduke, you're cool too. And as for Marmaduke-creator Brad Anderson? The Marmaduchy provides feedback and, more importantly, validation. It's damn hard to be a cartoonist -- or a creator of any stripe. It takes effort and ego and skill and talent, and you spend a huge amount of time wondering if anyone gives a fuck. The Marmaduchy tells Anderson "yes. Yes, we give a fuck. We give many fucks. In fact, if you want us to, several of us will in fact have sex with you if you want, because you have brought so much pleasure to our lives that we would dearly love to repay you."
There is absolutely nothing wrong with this. Communities like this are good things, for most of the people in them. They're generally good for the creators as well. They mean something. They mean a lot, really.
I'm in a few Fandoms -- not generally webcomics Fandoms (I spend my time on so many different webcomics it's hard to develop the monofocus necessary to be a good Fandom-member) but other Fandoms. I'm definitely in the In Nomine Fandom, I used to be in the Legion of Super Heroes Fandom (and even quit in verbose disgust when they changed the Legion -- so I'm not claiming any moral superiority here) and I spent time in the Babylon 5 Fandom. I enjoy the SF Fannish subculture, which puts me in kind of that overall metafandom. And I'm occasionally in a fandom for individual creators of webcomics -- I do like reading creator-journals, for example, and I comment a lot more in those than I do in the strip-forums. I'm not wholly immune to fora, either, though I'm a totally arrogant jerk so I spend more of my time in strip-forums seeing if anyone's mentioned Websnark than actually participating in discussions.
But I see Fandoms, all the time. And as I spend more and more time observing them, I also recognize the dark side of Fandom.
Its name is "Entitlement."
The most common lament of Webcartoonists who achieve any kind of following is the overwhelming number of comments they get -- whether in e-mail or on their forums -- demanding things of them. Demanding that picayune mistakes not happen next time. Demanding that characters act the way the fan thinks they should, not the way the cartoonist actually portrays them. Long screeds get published on the forums of how a given plot arc is driving the readers insane and they hate it. And don't get me started on what happens when a webcartoonist actually misses an update. Holy Jesus Christ Without a Spine Curled Up I A Basket, this is a mountain of suck for the cartoonist.
Almost all fandom members feel a certain sense of entitlement. This is normal. This is healthy. This is even slightly legitimate. The overall feeling is "I have invested something of myself into Marmaduke. I evangalize Marmaduke. I spend a portion of my day on Marmadukish things. I affirm Brad Anderson. I deserve some recognition for this." And yeah, they do deserve some recognition. They certainly deserve Brad Anderson saying "guys, thank you so much for supporting Marmaduke. It means a lot to me that you like the strip."
And... well, that's about it. They're already getting Marmaduke for free (or for the cost of their newspaper). They don't get part-ownership of Marmaduke by virtue of liking to read it. And if they offer Brad Anderson sex and he takes it, that just means that Brad Anderson got some. It doesn't mean they get to dictate what Marmaduke would or wouldn't do. The majority of Fandom members get that.
There is a minority, however, that dives into Entitlement, butt naked and way over their heads. They do own Marmaduke, damn it! They've been loyal and they've been true, and Brad Anderson is a total asshole who doesn't really give a fuck about Marmaduke or great danes in general! If he did, he'd do the strip the way we want him to! Dammit! Someone should be able to take Marmaduke away from him, so that Marmaduke could be done right! This can mean anything from Marmaduke doing nothing but cat loving (or cat hating) jokes to redesigning Marmaduke to be female with human breasts, depending on the person in question. This minority is always there, lurking under the Fandom's surface, waiting for prey... and the moment any kind of deviation from the norm happens, they break surface, ready to devour.
The absolute worst examples of this are when they don't like the turn of events in the strip. "You made Marmaduke sad!" they write, truly outraged. "He went to his bowl, and that fucking Pekinese had eaten all his food, so he had no food and he was sad! I don't fucking read Marmaduke to see him sad! He should always be happy!" And then they get into an eighty-post long flamewar with other forum participants on whether or not it was appropriate that Marmaduke was sad.
The problems with the Entitled in a creator's fandom are threefold:
- Conflict in a webcomic is a good thing. Bad things happen in webcomics because they either set up situations where the Funny can be brought forth or they set up situations where the Story can be moved forward. Without conflict, the webcomic becomes nothing but a barely connected series of pictures without meaning or merit. If you need an example, have a look at the Simpsons episode where Itchy and Scratchy, bowing to pressure from parents' groups, stop being mean to each other and instead give each other lemonade all the time. Sometimes, the characters are going to do stupid things or make bad choices -- that will then feed the strip material to work with for a long time to come. So get over it.
- The Cartoonist is under no requirement to worry about other peoples' emotional state. If you invest so much of your own sense of well being into a comic strip that anything bad happening to the comic strip characters feels like a personal affront, you officially need to get a fucking hobby away from your computer. If the Cartoonist does his strip as his job, his only obligation is to produce strips on time, and try to make them high quality enough so he doesn't alienate his audience. If the Cartoonist is doing this as a hobby or on the side, he doesn't even have that obligation. In neither case does he owe you or me a good life. He probably doesn't even know us. So get over it!
- Cry wolf too many times, and those rare times when outrage is warranted it won't be forthcoming. Look, there is an appropriate level of expectation involved in producing art on a regular schedule or basis. If, after 40 years of tenderhearted dog antics, Brad Anderson put in a strip where Dottie is brutally anally raped while Marmaduke is spiked to the floor with railway spikes, you better believe there will be outrage. There should be outrage, in a situation like that. Anderson has given his readers every reason to expect he won't suddenly subject them to a situation like this. But, if Anderson, Anderson's fans, the Marmaduchy Moderators and the support group has gotten accustomed to defending Anderson every time someone has a conniption because the Pekinese ate Marmaduke's food, then as soon as the far-more-justifiable outrage over anal rape and dog torture begins, his support mechanism will out of habit immediately begin defending him, hopelessly muddling the situation.
Just to make everything more difficult, there's also the question of the Creator's relationship to his Fandom. Because despite everything I said above, there's something crucial a creator of any stripe must understand about the Fandom that's grown up around him. The Creator owns his creation, and may do with it whatever he wants, but he doesn't own his Fandom and he doesn't get to dictate to them. Oh, he can try to dictate, all he likes, and the fans who weren't the problem to begin with will happily jump in with both feet. However, the Fandom as a whole is something that the members have invested in, and they do get as much of a say as the creator on how that Fandom is going to go. There are two highly public situations where a creator/owner of a property and that property's fandom came to serious terms, and in neither case was it pretty:
- White Wolf Studio, owner of Vampire: The Masquerade, had given its blessing and official status to a group called the Camarilla (after an organization in the game) which provided an official framework for developing LARP characters who then could move all around the country. Well, there reached a point where White Wolf and the Camarilla couldn't see eye to eye, and acrimony developed. On the one hand, the company had significant investment in their product line and had to be able to influence their "official" fan club's use of their materials. On the other hand, the Camarilla members and leadership had invested tremendous time and energy into the official Chronicle the group ran, as well as the organizational structure. (This is an incredibly simplified take on the situaion. I know there was far more depth to it.) Eventually, there was a messy divorce between the pair, with the license being pulled and ultimately threats of lawsuits. White Wolf owned Vampire, but the group was more than just a Vampire chronicle at that point, and the bad feelings and rift the breakup engendered extended far beyond the actual event, on both sides.
- Aaron Sorkin, the creator of The West Wing, began participating in the forums that had grown up around the West Wing on Television Without Pity. He enjoyed greatly the intelligent commentary, the humor, the feeling of community, and the implicit offers of sex he received. And then he started taking heat from one segment of the fanbase. Unlike White Wolf, he had given no official sanction to the group that he could revoke. Instead, he actually put a subplot about insane Internet forums onto the West Wing itself. His intent was to imply the forum participants on TWoP's forums were insane and stupid. His effect was to make pretty much every member of every fandom whether connected to Sorkin or not pissed off. It was one step above making fun of trekkies. Naturally, he did that later on. As a result, even though Sorkin is a brilliant writer who elevated the craft of television writing, there were far fewer tears shed than expected when he lost his job and moved on into... um... well, I assume he spends a lot of time on the Internet himself these days.
In both of the above situations, the Fandoms persisted after the hullabaloo. There is still a Camarilla, and it's still chugging along in Vampire (despite the relaunch of the World of Darkness). And Sorkin's tirade on the West Wing had no effect on the West Wing forums at Television Without Pity at all -- except maybe to remove some of the luster from the show for the participants.
So, in the end it's a two way street. Fandoms are powerful things, good for spreading the word about a community and giving a webcartoonist some much needed positive reinforcement, love, and implicit offers of sex. However, they are their own entities, unto themselves, and will feel some justified entitlement because of the energy they're putting into themselves. Some members of that Fandom will have batshit insane feelings of entitlement, leading them to tirades and demands that no one will think is appropriate, and the webcartoonist might find him or herself hating the very organization that has grown up around the strip in question.
I tend to side with the webcartoonists in these things, by the way. But I understand implicitly that it doesn't matter -- the Fandom will do what the Fandom will do, some asshats will be in the Fandom and will act asshatty, and -- most importantly -- an implicit offer of free sex over the comic strip you create will turn into the most expensive sex you have ever had.
Oh, if you're wondering... Websnark has no Fandom. Critical commentators get to have arguments for free.
1 The case can be made that the entirety of Websnark.com represents my entry into overall Webcomics Fandom, and that any critical commentary I put into Websnark represents my own embrace of entitlement and all the rest. To anyone making that case, I say: "dude, you're not paying for this. I'll do whatever I want." When it's pointed out that that isn't a denial and that I am in fact calling the kettle black, I respond by beating the crap out of the questioner and running in one direction for one hour. Thank you, Superosity, for refining my debate skills.