Kleefeld’s ‘Fanthropology’ #1

By Sean Kleefeld

Welcome to the inaugural edition of Kleefeld’s Fanthropology! I expect you’re asking yourself, “What is this? What’s fanthropology? Who is this Kleefeld guy anyway?”

Fanthropology is the study of fans and fandom. The word itself is a portmanteau; that is, it’s the words “fan” and “anthropology” smushed together. A little play on words, but I like the term because it gets right to what we’re talking about here. Anthropology is the study of human beings in relation to their culture. So while the archeologist is digging up fragments of old pottery, the anthropologist is trying to figure out who were the people that created that pottery and how did it fit into the overall mosaic of their daily lives. But with FANthropology, we’re focusing our studies to the subcultures of fandom specifically.

To answer the “who is this guy” question, you could say that I wrote the book on fanthropology. Because I literally did. I became interested in the notion of studying comic book fans in particular a little over a decade ago, and I quickly discovered that almost nothing had been written on the topic. I figured that science fiction fandom had been around a bit longer and the two are pretty closely related, so maybe I could find something there. There was a little more, but not much. I did what research I could, took a fair amount from my own experiences, and wrote Comic Book Fanthropology because, frankly, nobody else was writing about it.

I’m not the first person to write about fans and fandom, but when I first wrote my book, about all you could find were memoirs which included references to being a fan and simple histories. That and some scientific journal articles that tended to be heavily laden with psychology research statistics. Outside of only two or three authors, the idea of studying fans and fandom for anyone other than psychologists was almost unheard of.

That’s changed in the past few years. Stu Levy spent the summer of 2010 driving a bus across the U.S. looking for “America’s Greatest Otaku”, Morgan Spurlock released a documentary last year on the people who attend Comic-Con, Adrianne Curry just presented a series of web videos focused on “Super Fans” earlier this year… Just this morning, I got a note from someone who was starting a research project on cosplayers. The idea of turning the focus from the objects of our attention back on ourselves is gaining more and more traction. That’s in part where this column comes from.

As I suggested earlier, fandoms of all sorts share a lot of commonalities. Regardless of whether you’re into Star Wars or One Piece or Harry Potter or My Little Ponies, what you get out of your favorite fandom is probably much the same thing that somebody else gets out of their favorite fandom. What you see that attracts you to one set of stories over another can vary a great deal, and how you express your affection for it might be wildly different, but there’s a lot to be learned from everybody here.

When I was doing research for Comic Book Fanthropology, as I said, I looked to books about science fiction fandom as well. The earliest one I could find, published in 1969, was a history of sci-fi fandom starting from the earliest parts of the 20th century covering up through the 1950s. It was a dreadfully dry book to slog through, and didn’t have a whole lot that I found ultimately useful, but I was struck by how it read exactly like the history of comic book fandom. If you changed the names and dates, it may as well have been comic fandom instead of sci-fi fandom. And if you’d also go through and changed “mimeograph” and “fanzine” to “message board” and “blog feed”, it would read almost exactly like a contemporary account of a burgeoning fandom. That’s how similar these groups are.

I’m going to use this column to further explore fandom. Who fans are, what makes them tick, why they devote so many resources to their hobby… And I’ll certainly point to specific examples, and probably do some interviews with a number of fans. But if you look at those examples and those interviewees and think, “Man, I can’t relate to that! I just love playing Dungeons & Dragons; I don’t care about furries,” keep in mind that there’s a broader perspective here that reflects your own. Even if the specifics look strange or foreign to you, the ideas and emotions behind them are probably quite familiar.

I have met some terrific people through fandom. I’ve also met some not-so-terrific people through fandom. But I’ve found the terrific far outweigh the not-so-terrific, as I suspect most of you have. So over the coming weeks and months, let’s take a look at what makes fans and fandom so great. Even though it’s my name on the column, it’s about all of us: Trekkies, Browncoats, Twi-Hards, True Believers… everybody!

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