When Fandom Swings The Sword

By  · Published on July 3rd, 2016

The Big Idea

The distressing way in which fandom overreacts before stories are complete.

Every week there’s a new controversy in the world of fandom. It’s become a fractured landscape, pitting fans against creators in a constant battle between expectations and reality.

In a few weeks, Paul Feig’s Ghostbusters will hit theaters and we’ll do this all over again. The reasonable among fandom’s ranks will judge the film on its own. The unreasonable have already seen their fuses lit. And therein lies the ultimate problem with fandom today: it’s not that we’re in a constant state of judgment, it’s how and when that judgment is handed down. In too many cases, large segments of fandom are judging project in advance, or in a less-than-complete state.

This is something that came full circle again this week in the comic world with Captain America: Steve Rogers, the already-controversial comic series from Nick Spencer. (Spoilers for Steve Rogers #1 and #2 inbound). When the first issue hit shelves (and even days before), the internet was ablaze with controversy. In the final frame of his story, Spencer revealed something that comic fans had never seen before: Steve Rogers has been Hydra the whole time. This was a distressing turn of events for longtime Captain America fans. How could Marvel possibly allow a rewriting of Caps history that made him out to be a Nazi?

The unreasonable response was to send death threats to Spencer (which happened in droves).

The reasonable response was to say, “Hey, maybe we shouldn’t judge this story until we’ve see more than one issue.”

This past week, Steve Rogers #2 hit the shelves of our local comic stores and as expected, the reasonable responders were right. It turns out that Red Skull had been using a Cosmic Cube to manipulate time and space. So even though present day Steve Rogers was a Hydra agent, it wasn’t his original story. It’s likely that over the course of the next 10+ issues, Nick Spencer will have something interesting to say about the consequences of manipulation of timelines. Either way, he was never saying that Captain America had always been a Nazi. Nor was he deserving of the outpour of negativity, even if he had.

This is a trapping of serialized entertainment, amplified greatly by the speed and communal nature of the internet. If you read Steve Rogers #1 and wanted to be unreasonably maligned about it, there were 1,000 places you could go to find like-minded individuals. In those places, negative energy is combined and compounded until a severe reaction is carried out.

Part of this is something I can understand. Not the death threats. Those people need to seek help and have no place in the pop culture discourse. But the first part, the unreasonable reaction to an unfinished story. In my recap of Game of Thrones’ sixth episode of season five, “Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken,” I wrote the following about the scene depicting the wedding night of Ramsay Bolton and Sansa Stark:

The greater issue I have this week is that the show has truly fallen in love with its shock value. The Sansa scene more than any other proves this. I worry that such an infatuation will cause problems in the future. Then again, it’s important to see the forest through the trees, which means that I’ll reserve judgment on that until the end of the season (and perhaps the series itself).

This was accompanied by Scott Beggs’ article “The New Game of Thrones Rape Problem.” It was a critical bludgeoning, to say the least. But as you’ll note, there’s always moderation. Despite the fact that we’re having a strong reaction to an incomplete story, there’s always a bit of hedging: we should always remember that context matters, and context isn’t complete until the story is complete.

A season and a half later, we’ve been given the payoff for what happened to Sansa. Is the juice of “Battle of the Bastards” worth the squeeze? To some, it might be. For me, as a book reader, it still doesn’t feel like Game of Thrones needed to go down that road. And I stand by my original review.

What would be impossible to stand by would have been some kind of severe reaction – similar to what author Nick Spencer experienced with his Captain America story – there’s no taking back death threats. There’s no escaping from comments made that personally attack a creator. This is the difference you will see between a critical response and an irrational fan response. One understands the process of creation, the other simply expects to be pleased.

This isn’t meant to be a trumpeting of why critics are important, it’s simply an example of how critical thinking and an understanding of context go a long way. If you’re truly a fan of something, it’s worth your time to learn about how it’s made. This week, I saw numerous fans on Twitter – likely backtracking their own heinous comments – claiming that Marvel probably made Nick Spencer change Steve Rogers #2 because of the backlash. As Devin Faraci explains over at BMD, this is a fundamental misunderstanding of how comics are made. You’d think that true comic fans might know this, or might have a vested interest in finding out.

This all brings us to this week’s Big Idea: context matters. Especially when dealing with serialized entertainment such as comics or television shows. And while I’d readily admit that I’ve had strong reactions to incomplete stories, I do my best to keep context in the conversation. Fandom could use a lot more of this, as there’s a growing sense of entitlement and shortsightedness that’s getting in the way of thoughtful, substantive discussions about the things we consume together. That’s the real power of the internet. The power of the internet exists in spaces where these thoughtful conversations are happening. It’s not there so that we can threaten to kill creators.

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Neil Miller is the persistently-bearded Publisher of Film School Rejects, Nonfics, and One Perfect Shot. He's also the Executive Producer of the One Perfect Shot TV show (currently streaming on HBO Max) and the co-host of Trial By Content on The Ringer Podcast Network. He can be found on Twitter here: @rejects (He/Him)