So, with my most recent book I’m reading, I’m getting into a domain of comic book (well, in this case more properly geek culture in general) study that I don’t really know as much about, at least not formally. Fan culture. Specifically, so called “fanon” and “fanfic” communities. I’ve come to really like just posting my random notes and thoughts here for two reasons. One, it’s convenient to me to sit down and just type through some things that have occurred to me to help me organize my thoughts. And two, often people saying stuff in the comments makes me think of other things that I want to look into. Since this is something that I don’t know as much about this seems like a good one to really just ask people for their thoughts.
Anyway, I’m currently reading Playing Fans: Negotiating Fandom and Media in the Digital Age by Paul Booth. The first couple chapters deal with two very unique fandom communities, neither of which I know much about other than a passing familiarity: “SuperWhoLock” and “Inspector Spacetime.” The first is a community that focuses on the shared universe that the TV shows Supernatural, Doctor Who and Sherlock inhabit. For those who are saying “what the fuck? I didn’t know those shows were in the same universe!” Well, you didn’t miss anything. They’re not. Not at all. It’s just that there’s a community of fans who like to pretend that they are and generate memes and fanfic as though they could interact on a regular basis. The second is a fan-community devoted to the Doctor Who parody character, Inspector Spacetime, from the TV show Community. Again, this is a community devoted to documenting the fictional universe of the character.
What makes these two fandoms special, at least to Booth, is the lack of canonical material that they are based around. As I said before, there are no actual canonical crossovers between Doctor Who, Sherlock and Supernatural and the grand total of canonical material from Community that makes up the entirety of Inspector Spacetime’s official continuity amounts to about two minutes of screentime spaced out across three non-related episodes. So in effect, the entirety of the canon that the fandom is devoted to in both cases is specifically non-canonical. Booth relates them to being a fan of the Simpson’s Itchy and Scratchy, but notes that what makes them special beyond that is the completeness to which the fans have filled those universes out, and the the Inspector Spacetime wiki and the SuperWhoLock tumblr imply that he has a point.
But this has gotten me thinking about canon and fandom in general. If you sort of casually talk to any geek about the media that s/he is addicted to, it SEEMS like geeks are highly invested in canon. Comic fans get very upset if Spider-man does something in 2016 that contradicts something he said in 1966. Star Trek fans written volumes on piecing together the working of warp drive, the timeline of star dates and making sure the Klingon language is semantically and linguistically cohesive. I’m pretty sure when Disney announced that 40 years worth of Star Wars novels, comic books and video games were no longer officially part of the canon starting with the Force Awakens and moving forward, some significant portion of the fanbase had immediate aneurysms and died. Fans care about canon.
Except they don’t.
Every superhero comic book fan ever has had a single very specific argument. Who would win a fight between Superman and the Hulk? Children have hospitalized each other on playgrounds across America over this question for decades. I don’t have any actual evidence to back it up but I have to believe that at least one person has been shot in a fight at a comic book store over this (at the very least I’m sure someone has been kicked out of a Magic The Gathering tournament or something). Forget gun control, campaign finance reform, taxes or abortion rights, I’m sure the answer to this question is the fundamental split between democrats and republicans.
I’ve heard this argument a million times, but the one answer that you never hear in response is “neither, because they’re in different worlds so the fight can never be canon.” And yes, I realize they have met in non-canonical books, but that’s kinda my point!
The thing is, I’m starting to think that geeks care about canon, only in as much as they can use it for source evidence for the fanon that they really care about. Even the non-canonical Marvel vs. DC books primarily serve, I think, as reference material to discuss what fans think SHOULD happen in that fight. For every superhero roleplaying game ever published by Marvel or DC there’s some website out there devoted to publishing the stats for characters from the other company just so that you can get Superman and the Hulk in the same game.
Then of course there’s actual fanfic. Obviously with Inspector Spacetime there is far more fanfic than actual content, and in sense there is with SuperWhoLock as well, but I don’t know that that makes it as unique as Booth implies. Without checking, I’m willing to bet that at this point, far more pages worth of Harry Potter adventures have been written by NOT J.K. Rowling than she has done herself. And of course this isn’t limited to that. There are entire epics of intricate fan communities from everything from Transformers to Firefly. Firefly in particular, given it’s relative small amount of official canon material (even counting the comics), probably has more non-canon material produced by the fans. I’ve not really looked into it, but I’m betting there’s probably some that’s pretty respected by their community.
In a sense, I expect even Cosplay counts here. Cosplay isn’t just about dressing up as the character as accurately as possible, it’s about embodying the character. Portraying the character. Living his/her essence. In particular, every con I go to, the fans who portray Deadpool and Harley Quinn (probably the most common cosplays currently) are quite fond of tying to get the mischievous attitudes and mannerisms as down as possible. But it’s not like they go around the cons, ignoring everyone that doesn’t fit into their character’s normal universe. A big part of the fun is seeing them interact with each other across the normal universe boundaries. Any picture they pose for together is in effect, the fan publishing of a work of non-canon crossover fiction.
I’d assume that in most cases, people sort of privilege the official canon works, except in cases where there isn’t much (Inspector Spacetime) but I’m not sure there. For instance, the Highlander canon is a mess. There is no possible way to fit it together because movies and the TV show frequently contradict each other (Highlander 2? What the Fuck!?!?!?). And yet, it certainly has fans… and I imagine each fan sort of builds their own head canon that works for them. But that’s the case for canons that are theoretically well maintained as well. There’s so much content from the shared universes of Marvel and DC that no one person can possibly keep it straight, and even in the stories that don’t necessarily contradict each other, I’m pretty sure that most fans (and even creators) tend to just disregard which ever elements they don’t particularly care for (Spiderman clone saga? What are you talking about. That never happened!!!)
Certainly, a lot of the fanon is trying to remain as true to the concept as possible (I want to write my own Batman vs. Joker story) but then there are the really weird edge cases. Things that simply can’t happen without specifically accepting a major deviation from the canon as the base premise for your new narrative. Slash fiction fits here. As fun as it might be to theorize a sexy whirlwind love affair between Kirk and Spock, you can’t really fit it into the established storylines and specifically have to throw stuff out to get there. Cosplay mashups are the same here. Disney princesses in slave Leia bikinis might be super sexy, but it just makes no damn sense in any reasonable way, shape or form…. I mean… I like it… I really like it…. like a lot… like in a way that I’m really not totally comfortable with… like, after looking at the picture that I found when I was researching this, I’m now very afraid that I have some serious psychological issues that I might need to be working on and… ok… let’s just move on… The point is, in order to work with these conceits at all, the author/cosplayer has to specifically ignore established canon from the get-go.
Sometimes, this even works out. Allegedly the character of Felicity Smoak on Arrow was supposed to a one-time extra, but fans responded so positively to her that she was written into the show full time, and from there, the sheer volume of fans shipping her and Ollie online led to her eventually becoming the romantic lead. Similarly, Iceman, in the comics is now officially homosexual — contradicting decades of evidence to the contrary. While I have no idea what actually made Brian Michael Bendis, the writer, make this decision when he was working on Iceman, it is worth noting that fans had been speculating that the character was secretly gay on the Internet since at least the early 90s, so I imagine there was at least some feedback that went into this decision. And I’m sure part of the decision to make the current Sulu gay in the Star Trek reboot has to do with the common knowledge that George Takei, the original Sulu, is a gay man, even though his character was straight.
So what I guess I’m wondering is how do people reconcile canonical vs. non-canonical fiction in their heads? Do you read both? Do you privilege one over the other? What do you do when official canon contradicts itself? I guess I’m especially interested in how people consider themselves fan creators of some type (cosplayer, fanfic writers) make these decisions (but I’m interested in other people’s as well). If you’re a cosplayer do you strive to interact with other cosplayers that fit within your fandom (Look, we’re all Avengers!) or is it more fun to interact with others in ways that can’t normally happen (Iron Man vs Predator). Is it better to try to accurately mimic the source material or is it more interesting to adapt it as a mashup or otherwise mutated version? How do you decide? Same thing for fanfic writers (and readers). How do you decide what parts of canon to keep and what to ignore when you write a story? How do you decide what pieces of other fanon to adopt into your own work? What makes these changes special and worthwhile? And for people who DON’T appreciate these sorts of changes (either when making their own fan works or just reading something someone else did or looking at cosplayer costume modifications) why not? And if you don’t like the Leia Disney princesses something is wrong with you… well, ok… probably not… Oh god… what have I become?