Comics : Comic Book Culture: Fanboys and True Believers

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This story is part of a Lookback Series: Industry Books

This review was first published on: 2004.

Background...

I guess we all knew, deep down, that we comic book fans are a pretty special breed. Well, now it's official. Mr. J. Pustz is an adjunct professor of American studies at the University of Iowa, and he's used his incredible anthropological powers to dissect and analyse that most mysterious of human sub-species - "The American Comic Book Geek".

Actually, I don't like the term "Comic Book Geek", I prefer "Sequential Art-Literate Non-American".

In Detail...

Comic Book Culture: Fanboys and True Believers
Feb 1999 : Review (No SM)
Publisher:  University Press of Mississippi
Writer:  Matthew J. Pustz
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Cloth-covered paperback with no dust jacket. 266 pages at 6" x 9", this is yet another of those darned grown-up books. The last 30 pages consist of notes, bibliography, and index. Real research!

Don't be fooled by the friendly looking picture on the cover. This is a serious academic study. Mr. Pustz is is a former comic-book reader who decided to do some post-grad research, and ended up re-discovering his childhood love for comics. In the process, he seems to have learned a whole heap about comic book fans, especially those who frequent "Daydreams", his local comic book shop in Iowa City. This book is not really about the comics sold at Daydreams, but is very much about the comic book fans who frequent said store, and the culture they espouse and represent.

The style of this book is pretty chewy, most paragraphs are 15-20 lines long, meaning that your brain needs to be pretty well engaged. I tried to read this book during the evenings, in my "unwinding time", and that turned out to be a bit of a mistake - it took me almost two months to grind my way through!

That's not to say that there isn't some good stuff in here. Matthew digs into many aspects of comic fandom. He is particularly interested in the different divisions within fandom, and identifies a scale starting up one end with "alternative comic snobs" and their beloved B&W mini-comics, going through "middle-aged true believers" (i.e. decent folks like myself), and finally extending to "fanboys" who pick up every holographic #1 cover in the ignorant hope it might be worth something one day.

He does cover some interesting points about the difference between fans of comic books, and other "textual poachers" such as Trekkies. Other comparisons are made with fans of more mainstream aspects of popular culture such as baseball. The key difference, says Mr. Pustz, is the exclusive nature of comics. There are many aspects of comic culture (he says) that make it harder to enter the group from outside. The requirement to be comic-literate, the frequent self-referential nature of comics, the huge amount of back-history and continuity. All these present a barrier to new fans.

Plus, there is the negative perception of adults who read "childrens books". This is also kind of linked to the events of the 50's and 60's, the tyranny of the comic code, and such. There are all well covered in the opening chapters which give a great history of comic book fandom, touching on the EC days, the very special relationship that Marvel fostered with its fans once upon a time. He talks about the importance of letter columns, and of fanzines, and later of internet e-Zines like our very own "Peter Parker's Pad" (though sadly we're not mentioned by name). Comic conventions are covered, as well as a fair few other important aspects of "Comic Book Culture".

All of these sections are authoritively researched, soundly written and well annotated. So what's the catch? Well, firstly, while the writing is perfectly effective, it does have more than a hint of academic dryness to it that can really make for hard-going. I really struggled to get any flow or momentum in my reading. A big part of that might also be related to the second problem - this guy sure does love to repeat himself! This book really could have done with some savage editing, it could easily have been 50 pages shorter. It would have been a lot more readable, and would also have had much more impact.

The first chapter is fine enough, since the material is new to the reader. But in the second and subsequent of the five (long) chapters, the same themes start to come around and around. The sixth chapter is a bit of a "how I came to write this book", but it too ends up being a huge recapitulation of all that has gone before! By the end of it, I was hopping with frustration, as I trawled through these huge paragraphs searching for an idea that I hadn't already been presented at least twice previously.

I really get the feeling that the content of this book had been stretched to fit the number of pages required for an "authoritative tome", and in fact maybe the same could be said of the paragraphs - stretched to give a suitable sense of academic weightiness. Frankly, I could have done without that. Mr. Pustz could have done well to learn from some of the 15-part crossovers in the comics, and realised the benefits of pithy conciseness over weighty waffle.

In General...

This is the first dedicated treatise on comic fandom that I have encountered, and the novelty of a book completely dedicated to the study of the unique cultural phenomena that is comic book fandom is still very pleasing to me. For a serious comic fan, I'm still pretty ignorant about much of the history of comic books, and so I'm grateful to Mr. Putsz for bringing me up to speed on what happened in the early days of comics. I didn't know about guys like Fredric Wertham, and his battle with William Gaines and the folks at EC. I've never been a DC reader, so it was good to get a broader understanding of the cultural divide between Marvel and DC in the late 60's.

Furthermore, the bibliography and index are great resources. I'll definitely be using the bibliography to seek out further reading. So all of these certainly count in the book's favour.

On the otherhand, the somewhat turgid style of writing and the ever-increasing repetition through the book means that you may well find your attention waning as mine did before you're even half way through, despite the interesting nature of the raw subject matter. Though it may not be a fair comparison, it's hard not to compare this book with Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics, where every chapter introduced fresh material. By contrast, "Comic Book Culture" continually re-examines the same underlying material from a different angle, until there's absolutely nothing new to be said.

Overall Rating...

Good research, interesting subject by a well-informed author. Great notes, bibliography, and index - so I can't give it a below-average rating. Text is increasingly redundant in it's annoying redundancy, so I can't give it above average. Three webs then.