This was originally published on my blog (RIP) and got reposted in THE HOWLING PIT. Reposting today in answer to writer Ernest Hogan's observations regarding SF/comics shows over at his blog, which is always worth checking out.
Originally written in, uh, 2014? Not clear on the dates. But not much has changed.
I’ve been wracking my brain, trying to figure out why things are the way they are. Not everything, mind you. I don’t have the time to compose a supertheory of super-everything. But when I spend time in a place or situation, my brain gets to considering how it got there, the way it is and what brought it to where it is. Nothing happens in a vacuum, right? It’s all accretion and decay and rebuilding, particularly in matters of culture and the like. That stuff isn’t planned, no matter how many would-be-franchises get put out there. Particularly in fandoms.
And I’ve spent more than my fair share in a number of fandoms: science fiction, music, blogging, comics, academia (oh yeah, that’s a fandom, too). I end up never really belonging in any of them. It’s that outsider’s outsider thing working in my favor.
Slap a big question mark at the end of that last statement. Seriously. There’s nothing stranger than thinking “hey, these should be my kin,” looking around and figuring out that they’re not, that this place you’re ‘supposed’ to belong in simply doesn’t fit. There’s plenty of people I enjoy hanging out with, but once it moves past that circle, buckle your seatbelts for fandom.
So much of fandoms now is the whole basis of personal identity through consumption, which is something that often baffles me. Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy comics, as an example. I’ve written ‘em, written about them on and off for more than ten years (two volumes worth of material if one was so inclined to look them up on Amazon), have been to more comic shows than I can count, starting in 1989 and read them since 1981. You’d think, true-blue comic fan dyed in the wool, cut me and I bleed four colors forever, right?
You’d also be wrong. I read these things and love ‘em (have even been accused of fetishizing them on Intrapanel, which is perhaps half right) but I don’t identify as a comics fan. What’s more, you’d be hard-pressed to get people to identify me as one on sight. As an aside, I own exactly two comics-related shirts, and only one based on a character, that being Dr. Blasphemy from Rick Veitch’s BRAT PACK. I don’t scan as a comics fan, not even as an artcomix fan. But I do enjoy them. Even counting that, I don’t derive a significant deal of my personal identity from them.
Though they do take their fair share of time and attention on my part.
Another example. I like metal, particularly the doom/drone side of things. But wow, am I ever not a metalhead. I like a lot of punk (and have a fairly expansive definition of it, going from garage up to the Brits who adopted it to the West Coast/East Coast strains in the eighties and beyond.) You’d never mistake me for a punk rocker by dress or demeanor (other than perhaps not giving much though to how you choose to define me). In general, I like a lot of strange, outsider music, but again, you wouldn’t guess it at first glance.
There’s plenty of aesthetics I enjoy, whether it be in film or design or music or video games, but none of them are badges that I wear. Sure, oftentimes I fall in with crowds who derive identity from these things and can get along with ‘em pretty comfortably, but I’ve yet to find a uniform that fits other than say, normcore (go ahead, look it up, I’ll wait.)
The idea of taking these fandoms and deriving community from them, that makes some sense. And I suppose it makes some sense to dress yourself accordingly, marking your allegiance so that you can be recognized and accepted. But that’s never quite worked out for me. It’s okay. I’ve had a lot of practice not fitting in. Like, forever.
Advantages and disadvantages to it. I don’t feel like spending a whole ton of money on uniforms or things that make me belong, which leaves more for weird effects pedals and used books.
But all this outsider-ness does mean that I see things differently sometimes. I can see the commonalities in fandoms and that leaves me wondering how they manifest themselves in completely different ways.
Take science fiction, for instance. I could care about your gatekeeping. I’ve been reading and watching science fiction since I could read and watch anything, and I’m older than a bunch of you (at least in comics). I won’t pretend to be the most widely-read person in the genre, particularly because there’s a lot of it that simply doesn’t appeal (like when the science rides high and in front of the fiction part) and never will. That doesn’t mean that I don’t think the genre holds promise. It certainly does, or I wouldn’t be writing it (and BLUE HIGHWAY, for better or for worse, is science fiction – heavy on my mind since I’m in the middle of line edits on it).
I’m also spending more time in the social world of science fiction, at shows for the most part. I’m rather burned out on specialized discussion groups online, but don’t mind talking this stuff out in person. Lots of interesting folks to talk to out there as well, which is why I enjoy going to these shows. And I do enjoy it, no matter that it’s going to sound otherwise as I continue here. That’s okay, if I’ve got stuff that I point out about SF fandom, I could point out just as much in comics and videogames and music and academia, but they’re not the examples I’m working with right now. Comparisons will be inevitable.
This entry has been awhile in coming, really since I started going to science fiction fandom shows a few years back (though my first big one was Worldcon in 1993 I think, maybe 1992—it was a long time ago so I can’t nail down the year right off the top of my head.) And I noticed the difference in the shows and fandoms that far back, since I’d been a veteran of the San Diego Comic Con since 1989.
I know what you’re going to say next. “Nothing compares to SDCC! It’s the biggest thing ever! That’s unfair!” But SDCC in 1989 barely even compares to Wonder-Con now. SDCC in 1989 really comes closer to a show like Big Wow Comics Fest today. Sure, over the years, SDCC has become the née plus ultra of pop culture shows, but it wasn’t always like that.
Let’s break some things down. Ostensibly, science fiction fandom and comics fandom are the same thing: groups of people who enjoy works of popular culture. That’s what it boils down to. You can argue semantics/forms if you want. Go ahead. Science fiction fandom revolves primarily around books (and movies and television shows and cosplay and filk). Comics fandom revolves around comic books (and movies and art and cosplay and toys and television).
So, mostly the same thing, right?
But if you’ve been to both kinds of shows, you know they aren’t. At all.
For the last couple years I’ve gone, all the science fiction shows I’ve attended are set up in hotel meeting facilities, with a selection of meeting rooms, gallery, breakout rooms and a dealer’s room, along with a few tables usually promoting other shows in the hallways. Generally there’s no central location around which everything else is focused. If anything, that’s the hotel bar after hours, otherwise it’s ebb and flow.
Comics shows have all the same things (and are usually at convention facilities, not hotels): meeting rooms, galleries, etc, but the center of the show is the main floor, of which the closest equivalent in science fiction fandom is the dealer’s room (which is all but an annex, for the most part). This has been the case for every comics show I’ve attended, and I’ve attended a lot, particularly since 2008 when I started promoting STRANGEWAYS (that being a series of weird western graphic novels that you haven’t read).
Of course, one of the primary functions of the comics show is to offer independent publishers a place to sell into the comics marketplace. Science fiction shows don’t seem to serve that function, particularly in terms of the direct publisher-to-reader pipeline. I mean, it happens, particularly at the biggest of the big shows, but not nearly to the extent that it does at comics shows. Which strikes me as odd. Seems to me that these conventions are exactly the kind of place that publishers would be working. And yes, there are usually a couple of self-publishers/small publishers working science fiction dealer’s rooms, but no big ones.
Seems odd to skip over the audience like that.
Another major difference in the kinds of shows, and I can’t underestimate how major this is, is in size. It wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest if a show like Big Wow got twenty times the attendance that the last few science fiction shows I went to did. This may be an apples to oranges comparison, but Big Wow is hardly a gigantic show, even on the west coast alone. It’s grown steadily since I started attending them back in 2007 or so, but it’s nowhere near the size of even Emerald City Comic-Con, much less SDCC.
Science fiction shows (again, in my experience) show significantly smaller attendance numbers. This has advantages in terms of atmosphere and accessibility of guests and the like. And honestly, some comics shows get pretty overwhelming pretty fast, but fewer attendees means you’re reaching fewer people, right?
There’s other factors that come into play here, namely cost. I’m just going to look at door fees, not hotel, bar tab, etc. I go to Sac-Con, a local comic show, and I spend maybe ten bucks to get in, usually less. Something like Big Wow costs all of twenty or twenty five (for a day membership) and takes a good couple hours to survey. Wonder-Con, well, I don’t know, since I haven’t had to pay to get into one for years. SDCC costs something like two hundred bucks, right? But you’re getting your money’s worth in terms of programming (anyone who complains about the price for SDCC is looney, by the by.)
Most of the small sci-fi shows I’ve gone to are mid-to-high double digits for membership. The membership price for Bay-Con (not to pick on them, but they’re fresh in my mind) was eighty dollars for the weekend. Keep in mind, I’ve seen criticism of indie comic shows for charging all of ten bucks to get through the door and that means that folks don’t have money to spend once they get in. Now, most if not all SF shows are run by non-profits, but so are the bigger comics shows (which is a smart move for a lot of reasons, primarily how all kinds of shows live or die on the utilization of volunteer labor.)
Granted, it’s pretty clear that commerce isn’t a major factor in SF shows, but it certainly is in comics shows. This is neither good nor bad, but a difference in the mindsets.
Here’s where we really start seeing divergence in the two kinds of shows. My observation of comics shows is that there’s not a lot of concern placed on the preservation of traditions. They’re seen as places to go and get books signed and buy stuff and see artists. Science fiction shows seem much more interested in history and tradition of the conventions themselves. Again, neither good nor bad, but it does make for a different experience. (Though I’ll go to any Jack Kirby appreciation panel that crosses paths with me.)
And to extend the metaphor, science fiction shows feel a lot like a holding action. Whereas comics shows are on the move, trying to bring in more attendees, offering different content. Perhaps the holding action is by design. But if it is, then what’s the goal? What’s the endgame? I know, this is positing that there is not only an active plan, but an endgame to reach. Which is probably asking too much of everyone involved.
So, as far as I can guess, science shows exist to perpetuate the model of science fiction shows. Yes, of course, anything exists to perpetuate itself, but comics shows at least have shown willingness to change and to take on new content and audiences. Sure, there’s a lot of people complaining that comic shows are about a lot of non-comics content (sometimes I even agree, particularly in SDCC’s case, since it’s now Show West, Mk 2—giving the networks and studios a shot at a pre-consumer audience). But comic shows, by comparison are growing and science fiction shows feel moribund.
Which is baffling to me. But then I’m a guy who grew up in the seventies reading books out of my mom’s sci-fi book collection (and she wrote the stuff, too, under the name Ann Maxwell, all long out of print but she holds the copyrights) and got exposed to all kinds of things from Hal Clement’s NEEDLE books to DHALGREN by Samuel Delany and DOCTOR ADDER by KW Jeter and Roger Zelazny’s fantasy books. Back then, science fiction was pretty outsider entertainment. You have to remember life before STAR WARS, or at least imagine it, before there was a mainstream success like that. Before franchises.
I know. I’ll stop the nostalgia trip now.
Science fiction should be a chrysalis, not a cocoon. And my experience of science fiction shows of late is that it’s about the preservation of an esoteric order, not expansion. I’m not talking about gatekeeping necessarily (and I’ll note that borders of inclusion are being broken down in SF shows and comics as well).
But the shows themselves feel like they’re meant to conserve a way of fandom, not to create or to include more fans, more readers. If people wish to filk or cosplay or discuss their favorite authors, that’s great. But I want to see more readers of the genre (or really anything). Just like I wanted to see more people reading comics instead the preservation of an imaginary construct called “comics culture”.
I love science fiction. I really do. Have for a long time. But the subculture doesn’t need to be saved or preserved. Don’t worry, comics feels like it needs saving sometimes too, and it doesn’t. Misers need to save things and only dead things can be enshrined in gold leaf. Know what I’m saying?
Science fiction needs more readers, not fewer, harder-core readers. Don’t feel bad. Every kind of book needs more readers. But then they all need fewer readers who are out to preserve the purity of the genre as well. And I can’t help but feel like science fiction conventions serve that purpose and that purpose only, enshrinement and not celebration or, >gulp< mere commerce.
I suppose that one man’s enshrinement is another man’s community. But I’d offer the heresy that if you have active readers, you will end up with a community. Granted, you have to watch the kind of community it becomes, whether it’s inclusive or exclusive, walled and guarded by gatekeepers. Because exclusivity only favors those who are letting folks in behind the velvet rope.
Where’s this going? Seems clear enough to me. The phenomena of science fiction show as we’re currently seeing it, isn’t an expansive process, but in contraction. It’s a domed garden inside a jungle. The environment outside the dome isn’t necessarily hostile either, it’s still being kept out. The seeds for science fiction’s success have already been planted a thousand times over. It’s gone from pulps to novels to television, film, video games, etc. It’s no longer an outsider genre (or even collection of genres.) But why do SF shows feel esoteric and hidden by design? Fantasy is underground? What’s the most popular show on HBO again, folks? The most lauded fantasy in history is a six-movie series for crying out loud.
Is it a matter of simple economics? I know, it costs money to rent the hotel facilities and pay for guests’ travel and the like. Comics gets around that by living off the money brought in by merchants at the dealer’s room (as well as volunteer labor, one of the unspoken truths behind all pop-culture shows, and one that’s likely to change in the very near future, particularly for shows run for profit). Is book-driven SF popular enough to support anything more? (I hesitate to use the term “literary”, not because SF isn’t worthy of such a lofty crown, rather literary being a hodgepodge descriptor of critical opprobrium and not any intrinsic value.) And if that’s the case, then why? Where’s the excuse? GAME OF THRONES is how popular? The Harry Potter books? STAR WARS? STAR TREK? DR. WHO?
Those are all mainstream properties, but perhaps they’re being read by people who aren’t accustomed or comfortable with deriving some sense of their identity from what they read. In theory, there should be something for just about everyone at these shows, but often it’s just set up for folks who are already into these shows. But if that’s the case, then where does the expansion and renewal come into play?
Or is the design to keep the hothouse closed?
Comics, at least in terms of the physical comics show, has grown far beyond that, but then it’s supported by other media as well (again, not always to everyone’s approval/taste – there’s plenty of people who complain that SDCC was better when it wasn’t a media event). I see plenty of self-identified comics fans at these shows, but I see just as many (if not more) who aren’t, who just read comics or enjoy the movies and probably even read books.
I guess what I’m looking for is the sort of rejuvenation and expansion that comics shows have enjoyed to hit science fiction fandom, and honestly, I wonder if that’s even possible. Granted, I’m wanting this for purely selfish reasons (mostly so I can expose my work to more people at one time, but that’s all any author wants to do unless they’re King or Patterson or in that class). Still, with science fiction shows constructed in the way they are (ie, needing to be plugged directly into the fandom to even know about them, willingness to pay higher entry fees, etc) it’s tough to make them grow. If people even want them to grow.
Maybe it’s time to open up the dome, learn to coexist and grow. I know what there is to lose, but the other option is watching it be lost completely.