It's 2010, I'm at New York Comic-Con, and I'm hanging out/marginally helping out at a booth that my cousin and some of his friends are running. They're all independent comic artists, and god dammit, one day that's going to be my job too. I'm absorbing, and trying desperately to fit in while displaying the trademark sort of cool that I am in no way known for. They're set up in sort of a horrible spot, sandwiched between some of the big hitters (your Marvels, your DCs) and an obnoxious Michael Jackson Spin-The-Corpse! dancing game that's pumping the same three tunes through the overly-oxygenated air.
A note about big conventions, specifically this one: it simultaneously feels stuffy and kind of like you're outside, much like the air in a casino. There are far too many people, there's nowhere to sit, and shambling around for hours in circles tends to leave everyone with the same blank, weird stare. At least for me; I'm not a wear-a-tail-in-public-and-take-pictures-with-similarly-tailed-people sort of dude (no judgment here, that's how some people enjoy this stuff…just not me). And not being that sort of dude kind of makes you feel like you're stuck at a huge party where you don’t know anyone. It's really quite lovely.
Anyways, back to the Spot.
They don't seem to be located near any other independent outfits, and people expect the same sort of SWAG (Free stuff, specifically Stuff We All Get... I know, I know) and crappy available-anywhere sort of things the other surrounding booths had. So traffic is low, and people seem to be confused as to what the booth is. This is insane -- there is a big damned sign along with tons of comics and shirts and buttons and all sorts of comic-y chazerai -- yet someone asks who made the t-shirts hanging up behind the artists. I like to blame the Spot for this, but who knows.
A tween walks up to the booth and avoids eye contact, just takes a few stickers. "Those are a dollar!" they are told, because those stickers are a dollar. The tween apologizes and walks off. But the biggest insult is later, when a teenager who walks up, SWAG-Bag in tow, and looks one of the artists right in the eye. "Got any free stuff?" says the teen. "No, but we have buttons and stickers that are pretty cheap!" she responds. I'd write what the teen says here, but he is looooooooong gone.
This just about sums up what I'm getting at here.
I am a regular sort of guy. I work a regular sort of job. But I have a hobby, making comics, which I've been doing at the "amateur taking it seriously" level for a couple of years now. You may have seen them! Some of them run right on this very site, or maybe on my site. (I'll wait here while you read my entire oeuvre... You're back! Great. Did you get a haircut?) One day, I think it'd be pretty cool if that could be my job.
The comic has a bit of a following, but not nearly what it would need for me to be a pro. And I love comics. I've been reading comics forever and comics online since they existed, for hooray they are the greatest. I think this puts me in a unique position: one foot in the fanboy camp, and one foot in the People Who Make Things camp. And being in this position has given me a little insight on what modern fandom is doing to creative people, and to fans.
Let’s travel way back. To before I started making comics and posting them regularly, from before I took night classes at SVA to sharpen up. I was a mere notebook-doodler and huge fan-boy. The general scene at a convention, if I went, was to go up to a creator after nervously circling for a long while, followed by this exchange:
Matt: H…Hi there. I’d like to buy this. I like what you do.
Creator: Great, thanks.
Matt: (Horrible attempt at something witty)
Matt: (RUNNING AWAY)
I would have killed a drifter to have something -- anything -- to say to this person, who I respected and adored and wanted to like me, for standing out against all those other fans, that didn’t get it like I did, man. But the artist I was trying to talk to wasn’t very engaging, most of the time. It’s understandable to me now as to why, but back then? A death blow.
The biggest problem I have with these comic shows isn’t the stuffy atmosphere, or the simultaneously too-big and too-small convention halls. It’s not the obnoxious hawkers standing in front of the movie promotion booth for one of the “Big Two,” or the creepy middle-aged white guys walking around with paddles that say “Softcore” and “Hardcore” while they peddle porno Manga books. No, the biggest issue is trying to suppress the feeling that I’m better than the guy in the full Batman costume.
Something happens when you start creating. The gravity is towards feeling superior to those who digest what you make. That’s why a huge chunk of painters and novelists and chefs and cartoonists and journalists and bloggers et. al. tend to come off as such pricks. You have to fight it, almost. It’s no way to treat the strangers that appreciate you. It’s probably mostly a defense mechanism for criticism and difficult fans. And I most certainly feel it strongly because I see the guy in the batman costume, and maybe, if circumstances were a little different, that would be me. There, but for the grace of god, go I.
The big separation that I now feel also stems from the fact that fans are incredibly entitled. I freely admit to being like this, once upon a time. Is something not exactly to their specifications? Well, it must suck, and so do you, you big pile of shitty artist, you. Oh, but pander? Pander and you’ll win the hearts and minds. “OMG!” they’ll say (or type, more likely). “This Ninja LOLcat vs. Cthulu Nyancat comic is EPIC.”
This is a problem.
I get discouraged and downright angry that some people think that the audience should be consulted when art is made, and that’s sort of par for the course nowadays. It’s upsetting, and that’s not how good art gets made. I would say a singular vision always works better than crowd-sourcing. (I’m sorry I used that word. I’m so sorry.) Not to mention the weird stuff fans will do. I haven’t been at this long enough to get a ton of weird things emailed to me, but I’ve heard some horror stories that jive with my own.
And it seemingly gets worse all the time. Most creators, rightfully so, have taken to the internet. It’s simple to put things online, and it’s a great way to avoid censorship or problems with distribution. And it’s good for the fans too -- it’s especially uncomplicated to talk to the people you admire. It’s easy to get engaged, and one could argue that it forges a deeper connection between someone and the art. I’m sure this is well-trod territory, but: Something happens to some fans, who want the same recognition for their talents without putting in the actual work. Sites begin to play to comment sections that are only a small constituency of their readership. And, in turn, the commenters start to believe that they’re the actual ticket.
True Story Time: A few times in the (since defunct) comment section of my site, and definitely via e-mail, a reader or two has communicated to me the correct punchline for that strip. My reaction is always mostly 1) THE NERVE and 2) FUCK YOU, BUDDY, WHERE’S YOUR COMIC. But then, after the frothing subsided, I’d think back to when I was one of them.
So reaction number 3? Well, that was “Understanding.” Someone liked something I did! That’s pretty incredible. And this particular person was trying to start banter, or something like it. And I can’t find fault with someone trying to connect. So the absolute last thing I want to do is start a war of attrition with my readership. I’ll always lose, because to the normal fan, it’s much easier to think “hey, this one guy is such an asshole” versus “hey, every person that’s just like me is such an asshole.”And they’d probably be right! I don’t hear from 99% of the people who read. They’re probably some normal people. Like me.
It’s 2011, now, and I’m visiting a few friends that have booths set up at NYCC, having decided against bugging those poor folks from last year all weekend. I’m on the bus down 34th street, jammed in with a bunch of people wearing anime headbands whose meaning I can’t grasp. I feel inexplicably old. I get to the con, hobble around to say hi to the people I wanted to say hi to, proudly explain that I think I’ll be actually exhibiting for the first time, at a small con next year, and buy a few trade paperbacks at discount.
I commiserate with the people stuck in booths all weekend, where this weird sort of hatred of the fan-boys and –girls has set in over the years. I think I said to someone “I like to come to these things to remind myself why I hate all this stuff I love. It keeps me grounded.” Later, I consider this statement and simultaneously think “What an asshole thing to say,” and “What an accurate thing to say.”
I’m pretty torn. On one hand, my almost-an-artist half finds fans infuriating and they need to slow their collective freakin’ roll with regards to expectations. But my still-a-fan half is tired of being condescended to and maligned for loving something a little too much.
So: What to do about the tension here? Fans are too entitled. This turns creators off to interacting at all with fans, which is an extremely gratifying experience for a loyal follower. So I say to my fellow fans: Take it easy, guys. Artists really do appreciate the support a whole bunch, but it’s much easier to make better work without you sending them your fanfiction all the time and saying what their creations should be doing instead. If you want recognition for something you did, make something! It’s pretty rewarding no matter what, and it can’t hurt.
And I say to my fellow artists: Take it easy on those fans. They appreciate you, and it’s severely disappointing to be denigrated or shot down by someone you look up to. Try to remember before, when you were just like them.
And I say to myself? Maybe stop going to these stupid conventions for a while.