Tell us, oh Internet sages, about this new phenomenon they call Tumblr fandom:
“I had a discussion at ECCC with someone in comics, I’m not going to mention who, about how busy the convention was, and they said that some of the attendees were probably just ‘Tumblr fans.’
I asked what she meant, and she said that she felt there was a growing group of fans who love the characters and love MOMENTS of stories, but don’t read the actual comics ever. She said that they will buy a CHARACTER X t-shirt in a heartbeat, but don’t own any graphic novels. They will reblog a scene they like from a comic, but never go to an actual comics shop to get that same book.
Now, at first this seemed reactionary and diminishing, but I am curious about this notion. IS there such a thing as ‘Tumblr fandom’ in this sense?” –Gail Simone, sparking a whole conversation.
There is a problem of attribution on Tumblr: art lifted, reblogged bereft of credit, edited, mis-credited and plagiarized. There is an even wider problem of broken telephone: facts repeated, mis-repeated, straight up falsified, and not sourced. It’s impossible to control the dissemination of information on platforms like Tumblr (like the internet). And sometimes, in the case of speaking truth to power, that’s a good thing. Other times, in the case of bullying, hoaxes, or IP theft, it’s frustrating in the extreme.
There is not, however, a Tumblr-specific problem of fake fans who can’t be converted from casual appreciators into enthusiastic consumers. Artists are owed credit for their work and payment where it is requested or required, but they are not owed customers or engagement in their preferred mode. Let’s unpack.
What is a “Tumblr fan?”
Kayleigh Hearn: “Tumblr fandom” has become a kind of eye-rolling shorthand for denigrating a side of comics fandom that skews young, female, LGBTQ, and PoC. Go back a few years and people were shaking their heads about those “LiveJournal fans” too. It was disappointing to see that it was another woman who started this conversation with Simone, since the “you know, I bet they’re not real fans” tends to come from a generally male old guard with a bunch of nebulous and intricate rules for geekdom that just happen to shut the door in young womens’ faces. It’s the Fake Geek Girl meme. It’s Erik Larsen’s “vocal minority” tweet. It’s every “girl felt ostracized in a comic book store” story you’ve ever heard. It’s old. The way people discover and consume comics is changing. Some people have never been on a comic book message board, but check The Hawkeye Initiative every week. They’re engaged with comics, just in a different way.
And I find it amusing that this “they’re fans of MOMENTS but won’t buy anything” complaint was being made at fans who were at a comic convention. Look, cons ain’t cheap. If someone’s spending their time and money to go to a con or make their own Captain Marvel costume or whatever, they clearly have some kind of passion and fondness for what they’re seeing. No one goes to a con just because they reblogged Unbeatable Squirrel Girl a couple times.
KM Bezner: I am amazed that this person talks about “Tumblr fandom” as if being a casual fan of something is specific to Tumblr, online communities, or is anything close to a new phenomenon. (It makes it that much more obvious that she is specifically targeting women, due to the demographics of Tumblr compared to other online communities.) But there is SO MUCH out there to read, watch, listen to…I am a casual fan of many things, and if I was equally passionate about all the things I am even remotely interested in I would only have the time, money, and energy to be a part of a select two or three fandoms. And as much as I love Batwoman, Avengers, and Paranatural, I would get bored if those were the only comics I read, or the only comics I was allowed to own merchandise of.
I think Tumblr and online fandoms in general get the rap that they do because they introduce people to a variety of things that they enjoy, but maybe aren’t ready to invest their time and money into just yet. But it’s not just Tumblr or the Internet. The comics industry has grown so rapidly, and where readers used to focus their energy on just a few titles they loved, I think it’s now more common to read widely and diversely. While this makes this woman’s argument sound even sillier, it also has me holding out hope that comics become more welcoming to new readers, however it is they started reading.
Popular wisdom has it that social media fans aren’t “real” fans: they don’t necessarily engage with the source material, and they’re difficult to convert into paying consumers. Is there anything to this notion?
Catie Coleman: I think a lot of this has to do with the fact that the digital sales numbers aren’t made public like Diamond’s sales are. For some reason, the only people think of as “purchasing fans” are those Wednesday warriors who go to comic shops on the regular with active pull lists and, surprise surprise, tend to skew older and male. So compared to other comic book communities…sure, I could see that maybe there are fewer Tumblr users ordering hard copies of individual issues via pre-order. Probably because the demographics of Tumblr tend to be just those people who are the least likely to have engaged with comics that way, a.k.a. the young, the queer, and the ladies (you know, the folks comics have been consistently under-representing and alienating for decades). I think that says less about Tumblr or the caliber of fans who gather there and more about the INCREDIBLY HIGH LEARNING CURVE to get hooked into the direct market’s pre-order/single issue comic purchasing model.
I started reading comics through trades borrowed from the library at fifteen, and it wasn’t until a full decade later that I tried doing the single-issue/pull-list thing, which, incidentally, happened because of Tumblr when I saw something and went “whoa, whoa, whoa…there are more than one Robin? I have got to get the story on this.” It was digital issue of Grant Morrison’s Batman and Robin that got me going. A fan who sees an intriguing GIF set and says “Ooooh, I want to see more of that!” is much more likely to check out the digital version or order the first volume on amazon. They might eventually become a regular at the comic shop, but they might stay buying digitally or buying trades. Those dollars a “Tumblr fan” spend don’t suddenly disappear just because they’re not spent in the direct market, even though that’s how a lot of comics fans (and some comic creators) seem to think about it.
Kayleigh Hearn: Tumblr often has the memory of a goldfish and 20,000 reblogs don’t necessarily mean you’re going to see 20,000 sales. That could be maddening if you’re a creator, so I get that. I think the old comic collector mentality has been slowly eroded by the Internet, though. Back in the day, if you wanted to read every Iron Man appearance, you had to be literally digging through every longbox in the county to buy them all. But if you want to catch up on his two-page cameo in Mighty Avengers, you can find it easily. Newer fans aren’t so driven to be completionists. (And if that leads to less “I’m buying every issue of a run I HATE for the sake of a complete collection” toxic bullshit in fandom, cool.)
KM Bezner: I know for a fact that some of those casual fans ARE being turned into purchasing fans, because I am one. I discovered webcomics through Tumblr, and as I became a bigger part of the online comics community, I began reading more indie print comics. I now have a pull list at my local comic shop with over a dozen titles, plus those I only buy in trades, plus those I read online. As I became more familiar with the creators writing these independent titles, I ventured a bit more into Marvel and DC, but even now I still focus on those that are still early in their runs and easier to break into. I’m intimidated by some of these comics that have been around for fifty, sixty, or even seventy years. But I still care about the characters, and I want to get to know them and enjoy them the way comics fans who have been reading since the beginning do. But I’m not about to start back at issue one unless it’s part of a reboot, so I learn what I can online and through other fans.
I think a lot of the bitterness towards “fake geek girls” and “Tumblr fans” comes from the fact that these stories and characters are becoming more accessible. I think people who have been reading comics for years and “digging through longboxes,” as Kayleigh put it, have put so much time into their comics that they are frustrated with (and maybe a little jealous of) those who have come to comics though easier means. It’s the “back in my day” phenomenon, the idea that because something was more difficult it was also more valuable, the flip side being that having nearly unlimited access to these same stories is somehow less valuable.
Let’s talk about gatekeeping. Is there a time a place that you are “supposed” to enter fandom? Should there be?
Catie: To be honest, I have no idea. I got into comics reading Sandman, which is simultaneously held up as one of the great long-running series and derided because gothy girls got super into it in the 90s. Which…you guys, one of the characters is based on TORI AMOS; Sandman was always meant to be just as much for the strange, outcast girls as the stereotypical comic book dude. Those Vertigo series, like Fables and The Unwritten, were the comics I was reading a LOT of when superhero comics still seemed like an impenetrable universe outside the odd stand-alone Batman or Superman trade. But I’ve seen the snideness about girls who primarily read Vertigo books, as though fans of these widely available, critically acclaimed series are somehow worthy of derision.
A lot of people get into comics thanks to TV or movie adaptations, but it seems like some media are seen as more legitimate entry points than others. Oh, so you saw the Dark Knight and want to get in on some cool dark Bat comics? Sounds great. You got into comics because you saw the Captain America: The Winter Soldier and want to know more about Steve and Bucky how it happened in the comics? Ugh, you’re probably just a fangirl obsessed with Sebastian Stan. Even if the Brubaker/Epting Captain America stuff is genuinely good and awesome, people will judge you for starting there because somehow you’re doing it for the wrong reasons.
KM Bezner: I honestly don’t think it matters how you enter a fandom. How you started reading comics may impact your tastes, but ultimately the guy who discovered comics online, the kid who saw The Avengers, and the woman who started reading Archie as a kid are all going to the same comic stores and conventions. As comics are diversifying it’s becoming easier to forget that whatever their preferences these people are all part of a community that supports a fantastic medium. No two people are going to have the exact same experience, and it’s not required that anyone’s reading list overlaps with yours to be a part of the same fandom.
It’s easy to see someone new to a fandom who is unfamiliar with it and feel that they are trivializing something you are passionate about. I’m don’t always like the way that comics are adapted and marketed to new audiences, but if seeing a GIFset from Arrow online will get someone into a comic shop, then by all means go for it. Obviously it’s a bit more complicated than that, but the point is that it doesn’t matter how you start reading as long as you’re enjoying it.
Cherokee Seebalack: Joining a fandom as a newbie can be scary. Think of it from the perspective of Alan from Freaks and Geeks, someone who was interested in everything comic books and sci-fi. He may have had an encyclopaedic knowledge of Star Trek, but he still felt like he couldn’t be part of the conversations that Sam, Neil, and Bill were having, because he didn’t see himself as being part of their clique, part of a community. And this is a guy who knew his shit. It’s tougher to feel like you are accepted within a certain subculture when you don’t have all the background knowledge. That’s why platforms like Tumblr are important, particularly for comics, where that judgement doesn’t exist as much.
Does it really matter how or when someone has gotten into a fandom? Just because I wasn’t there at the beginnings of Dragon Ball Z or watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer as it aired shouldn’t make me any less of a fan. Just because I haven’t read every Daredevil comic ever written doesn’t make me any less of a fan either. People should be able to enter a fandom when it suits them, without the daunting feeling of exclusion. That could be when a film or TV adaptation comes out and there is a wave of new interest (and sweet merchandise), or it could be years later when more mainstream coverage has died down, but fans still debate their love for a series online. We should be accepting of people becoming part of our community, uniting over a shared love for something awesome, rather than exclusionary.