Kleefeld's Fanthropology #27: The Price Of Fandom

Kleefeld's FanthropologyFor the past five years or so, the name of Herbert Chavez has popped into my view on a roughly annual basis, and it's always in the exact same context. He's the gent from Calamba City, Philippines who's undergone multiple plastic surgeries to look as much as possible like Superman.

The mainstream articles almost always read exactly the same, regardless of the outlet or the year, so I won't belabor all the details here, but the short version is that he really, really, really likes DC Comics' Superman and struck a deal with a local plastic surgeon to get these procedures done for free in exchange for doing promotion work for him. My guess is that each spate of articles is prompted by a new procedure having gone well.

Herbert Chavez

Most of the pieces about Chavez are almost surprisingly supportive. I don't think I've ever come across one that paints him as a deviant in any way; they in fact talk up his hero worship and often make note that he not only tries to copy Superman's appearance, but as many of the characters' ideals as possible by trying to bring hope and joy to those around him. I don't know that the press would've been as kind a couple decades ago, and I think that speaks to the increasing acceptance of those with unusual interests and hobbies.

But what a lot of the pieces about Chavez tend to gloss over the other aspect of his fannish behaviors, namely his collection of Superman memorabilia. He's spent around $10,000 on Superman merchandise, literally covering the walls of his home with the familiar red and yellow insignia. He works as a dress-maker in a country where the minimum wage is about 51¢ per hour, so that obviously takes a huge chunk of his income.

But Chavez isn't really unique. In the United States, Christopher Dennis makes his living posing as Superman on Hollywood Boulevard. He's got something of a physical edge over Chavez in that he naturally bears a resemblance to former Superman actor Christopher Reeve, but his interest in the man of steel has also gotten him to adopt as many of the character's traits as possible. He happened to be in the news this week for defending another actor from a belligerent, boot-throwing vagrant.

Dennis is seen here in the States more frequently than Chavez in large part because of his proximity. But his natural propensity for emulating Superman has led to being featured in documentaries, on late night talk shows, and on book covers. Although I'm sure he's compensated for these appearances, much of his income goes to Superman memorabilia as well. He's got over 15,000 individual pieces at last count. Christopher Dennis

There's no question that both of these men are devoted Superman fans, and a discussion about who's a bigger fan would be futile. But what's unquestionably the case for these men is that they really devote as much of their livelihoods and their very lives to the character as is possible. One almost has to assume that if we didn't need to eat or sleep, they'd spent that time and energy on Superman.

In interviews I've seen, Dennis has noted that he's wondered about how sane it is to invest so much of his life into a fictional character. Even the men and women who seemingly benefited the most from the character -- from the writers and artists on the comics to the actors who've played the character professionally on screen to the executives at Time-Warner who own the rights to the character -- have not put so much of themselves into Superman. So to take so much hard-earned money -- and both Chavez and Dennis clearly work hard for their money -- and put that towards materials representing a character they happen to like seems a bit excessive. But is it?

Superman is a fictional character and can't actually bestow anything on Chavez or Dennis. He can't stop a speeding bullet for them or derail a runaway locomotive bearing down on them. He can't stop the Lex Luthors or General Zods, real or metaphoric, in their lives. He can't even thank them for their support with a handshake.

But what he can do is provide inspiration and direction for them. In the stories about him, Superman stands as the icon of truth and justice, righting wrongs because that's just what he does. Superman is love and hope personified. His message is one that speaks to Chavez and Dennis in a way that they don't get from anywhere else, and their purchasing habits and devotion to emulating the character is the closest they're able to repay him.

The heroes, mentors and guardians we have in real life are people we can usually thank in person and pay tribute directly to in some way. And, generally, they respond. Perhaps with a simple "you're welcome" or perhaps by through an ongoing and mutual friendship. But since Superman isn't able to respond -- he's a fictional character, after all -- people like Chavez and Dennis are never able to have their appreciation of all Superman has done for them acknowledged. But as he's still able to provide inspiration for them, they keep trying to thank him in the only way they're able: to create shrines and emulate him as much as possible in the hopes that the character might speak to others as well.