Michael G. Robinson enters into the comic book store, and finds that it is a space that generates its own specific fan behaviour. Charting the release of Superman #123 in one local store as a case study, Robinson suggests that the dynamics fan interaction within this commercial zone highlights the need to consider different fan spaces on their own terms.
On March 12, 1997, one of the most recognizable fictional characters in the world changed dramatically. Boasting with typical comics hyperbole that Superman is “Ready for the Next Century!”, the glow-in-the-dark cover of Superman #123 hit the stands, depicting a different kind of Superman for all to see. Immediately noticeable as missing were the familiar red, blue, and yellow colors and the traditional cape. In their place was a tight fitting one-piece body suit of white and electric blue. The emblematic “S” shield was shaped by a jagged bolt of lightning arcing to create the letter. The sculpted features of the Man of Steel seemed slightly unfamiliar in a soft blue skin, his eyes crackling with electricity. One wondered if this altered Superman could still outrace a bullet, overpower a locomotive, or vault a skyscraper.
Superman himself has evolved over the decades. From his early days as a hero who could not fly and who had limited invulnerability, Superman gradually acquired a vast and godlike resume of superpowers as various creators sought to increase his appeal and add wonder to his adventures. Although many changes in popular culture take place gradually, this particular alteration in Superman is important to understand because it is part of a deliberate commercial strategy to bolster sales in a declining industry. The new Superman is a jarring reminder that the first true superhero is a commodity owned by a corporation
as much as he is a patriotic myth for a nation.
While drastic, this was certainly not the first change for Superman. After all, he came back from the dead once. This change in Superman offers an important opportunity to understand popular culture and the place of fans and fan communication within it. A profound alteration in an American icon provoked reactions. While the many members of the creative teams on the four monthly Superman comics were predictably optimistic, writer Dan Jurgens noted the risk in the change. With some prescience he said, in an article by Senrich: “We’re making a deliberate attempt to change the status quo. I guess if we get a billion letters saying it sucks, we’ll probably back out, but I highly doubt that’s going to happen” (27). Anticipation of the change did indeed provoke a flurry of negative letters to the Superman comics. While the letters were published after the debut of the new Superman, the letter pages in Superman #124, Adventures of Superman #547, and Action Comics #734 were composed 2 months before Superman #123. Thus, the promotional material alone drew a series of negative
comments from people all across the world.
At the crux of this situation are comic book fans who read these stories and the comic book shops where the issues are purchased. The very identities of fans as fans are at stake as they confront this altered Superman on the store shelves. How then, do fans communicate their identities as fans and their reactions to this change? What role does the comic book store itself play in that expression? Fans offer explicit insights into the way that meaning is made within popular culture within specific cultural and commercial
Of course, popular characters do change. In a world of popular culture where super-spies come and go, new captains of the Enterprise take over the job of boldly going where no one has gone before, and different Time Lords gleefully spring into their TARDISes to seek new adventures in time and space, the only true constant is change. For some members of the audience though, changes in popular culture do not always come easy. While some might welcome Christian Bale to the role, others prefer the Keaton, Kilmer, Clooney, or even Adam West versions of Batman. To say that Picard is a better starship captain than Kirk or that Roger Moore is a better Bond than Sean Connery is to issue fighting words to some fans. Everyone who watches Doctor Who has one favorite actor among the many who have played different characterizations
of the same role.
While the study of all forms of fandom is valuable, comic book fandom demands investigation for two important reasons. First, while much work has been done with audiences of the visual and audio media, investigations of comic book fans are rare. As Amy Nyberg has often noted, most comic book research runs along the tracks of textual analysis in a realm untouched by reception research or ethnography. Jeff Brown’s study of comic book fans of Milestone comics, a DC Comics line featuring more diverse superheroes, and their consideration of issues of ethnicity and masculinity is one of the few studies to go directly
to audiences. Brown argued that:
Despite being one of the most active and well-organized fan communities to exist in modern times, comic book fandom should be considered an arena where the producers and the consumers of mass media meet to mutually construct meanings
across a wide range of possible variables. (199-200)
Investigating moments like the day Superman changed offers an insight into that complex dynamic. Since most people do not enter the space of a comic book shop, that space should also be described with ethnographic detail so that scholars
may understand what it is like physically and culturally.
Second, the American comic book industry has been in crisis for many years. Of the ten top comic book stories for a 1996 (the year before the blue Superman debuted) year-in-review article in Comics Buyer’s Guide, four dealt with the overall malaise within the industry. Three more stories dealt with attempts to stop the downward sales trend with special comic stories. The declaration of bankruptcy by Marvel Comics and the break-up of Image Comics were low points in comics history. Miller reported that between 1992 and 1996, one thousand comic book stores went out of business. It was also noted
By year’s end , an estimated 12,000 full-time jobs remained in the comics industry, down from nearly 30,000 before the collapse. Where formerly more than 50 titles posted direct market sales of more than 100,000 each month, by December 1996 fewer than 20 were into six figures — including no DC titles. (10)
Comic book historians and creators Gerard Jones and Will Jacobs have noted that the comic book industry is trapped in a vicious circle. The existing, rather loyal, fan base for comics demands that comic narratives be historically consistent. They also demand multiple-issue cross-overs among characters. These demands tend to limit the ability of new readers or fans of other books to engage with comics. Attempts to draw in outside readers by radical narrative changes can sometimes boost sales in the short term but these same strategies also run the risk of alienating the fan base. The comics business is facing a climate in which most commercial strategies will result
in slow attrition.
Superman becomes particularly interesting in this light. Just as Superman was the first superhero, he was also the first to undergo what would eventually become established industry strategy. As the comic book histories by Les Daniels and Jacobs and Jones demonstrate, the decision to rework the character in 1986 was the first major, deliberate strategy of this sort in nearly two decades. Dwarfed by its primary competitor, Marvel Comics, DC Comics embarked upon a plan to modify Superman and bring the character in line with the sensibilities of the modern comic audience. These sensibilities, not surprisingly, were pioneered by the pseudoscientific, humanistic style of Marvel books. Superman was thus made more human. His powers were scaled down from their god-like levels and steps were taken to emphasize the man in Superman, including a romance with Lois Lane and deeper interpersonal relations with other characters. Gaining mainstream press attention, the retooling was a commercial success and other DC characters were redesigned in this way. Major character restructuring and drastic change has thus become the comic book industry’s preferred response to sagging sales. However, as each character cannot be reworked from the ground up every other year, increasingly complicated narratives must be generated to explain the changes; hence the Death of Superman in 1993, his temporary replacement by four pretenders to his name, and his resurrection as a slightly more powerful, long-haired Man of Steel. The blue Superman represents one of many changes in the character and is part of a decade-long trend that has given readers, among other things, a replacement Captain America, a reworked Wonder Woman, several new Green Lanterns, and a cloned Spider-Man. At the very least this change in an American icon will force a reaction from everyone who hears of it. Investigating a change of this magnitude therefore demands a dynamic theoretical stance
A cultural studies approach to communications opens up a useful way to consider the reaction to these changes in Superman. From this perspective, James Carey advocates seeing communication as ritual instead of just the transmission of information. Carey states that “to study communication is to examine the actual social process wherein significant social forms are created, apprehended, and used” (30). Communication, in this perspective, becomes more than just mere exposure and effect. Instead, communication becomes
a richly complex interplay among producers, receivers, and texts.
One important consequence of this theoretical stance is the recognition that the receivers of mass media texts work to create meaning. As Robert Allen argues, “meaning should no longer be viewed as an immutable property of the text but must be considered as the result of the confrontation between the reading act and textual structure” (75). Lawrence Grossberg (1992) echoes this sentiment: “People are constantly struggling, not merely to figure out what a text means, but to make it mean something that connects to their own lives, experiences, needs, and desires” (52). Grossberg maintains that these struggles often take on an affective dimension because
the media texts enrich the lives of their audiences in meaningful ways.
Recognizing audiences as active in this way allows for the rescue of fandom from public and academic disparagement. Gone are the days when fans were automatically dismissed by academics as uncritical cultural dupes. Joli Jensen has shown the irony in past scholarly condemnations of fandom because little difference between academics and fans really exists. According to Jensen, only cultural capital allows academics to call their enthusiastic and unending quest for complete detail useful research while labeling the similar passions of fans as pathological obsession. Rather, fandom has come to be seen as an important part of identity. Janice Radway, for example, has demonstrated that female readers of romance fiction are actively creating spaces to explore their lives rather than blindly succumbing to patriarchal propaganda. As Cassandra Amesley found, fans navigate a complex sea of texts, experiencing them in a cognitively complex manner as simultaneously both real and constructed. In separate studies Henry Jenkins and Camille Bacon-Smith have described many ways that media fans actively create and circulate their own stories based on popular texts. In a complex fashion, fans are actively negotiating
and circulating meanings.
While fandom has been rescued, it should not be completely romanticized. First, although John Fiske in “The Cultural Economy of Fandom” certainly appreciates the active nature of audiences, he calls fandom a “shadow cultural economy” to emphasize the fact that fans must work from existing commercial products (30). As fans struggle to make meaning from commercial texts, Fiske notes, producers of those texts work to incorporate audience tastes into their cultural products. Fandom is not an autonomous process. John Tulloch (in Tulloch and Jenkins), describes fans as a “powerless elite”, positioned between an industry and a much larger general public whose support is often needed for fans’ favorite media texts to survive (144). Second, as Jenkins is careful to state, all fans are not equally productive poachers. There is always variation among audience members. Third, while most fans are not pathological, a small number of consumers of popular culture do exhibit tendencies that are potentially dangerous to themselves and others. For example, a selection of stories about fans and fan letters to popular musicians collected by Fred and Judy Vermorel includes letters in which fans claim telepathic connections to David Bowie, and a newspaper story on the assassination of John Lennon by an obsessed fan. Thus fandom plays out along a continuum that is constrained by commercial, cultural, and psychological factors and the comic book shop is an important space
in which these factors may be encountered and appreciated.
Fiske suggests that fandom operates in three interrelated areas that represent personal identity: discrimination and distinction, participation and productivity, and capital accumulation. The first area represents the choices fans must make between the various media texts in circulation. The second describes the meanings fans make by engaging the texts they chose. Fiske maintains that fans produce meaning in three ways: semiotic productivity, enunciative productivity, and textual productivity. Semiotic productivity takes place on the intrapersonal level as meaning is produced when the reader engages the text. Enunciative productivity is the expression of fandom in groups. Textual productivity is the creation of additional textual materials to supplement or circumvent the original text. Finally, fandom is based on capital accumulation of commercial texts. Prestige within this shadow economy
is often predicated on the type or amount of comic books owned by a fan.
A change in any comic book text could provoke a change in all of these areas of a fan’s identity. A fan may reorder the comic in comparison to others, deciding that it is no longer worth reading or that it is the first comic he or she must read after purchase. The fan may speak out against the comic or write a letter to the comic’s editor singing the comic’s praises. Finally, the fan might change his or her mind on the comic’s value as a collectible.
All of these changes take place in a complicated and interrelated way.
The optimum approach to understanding the fan reaction to this change in Superman is therefore a broad, grounded stance that looks for fan reaction on all of these levels. Data for this project was collected in three phases. The first phase involved an observation period of a comic book store. A site tour with the store’s owner was the second phase. Finally, some interviews were conducted with comic book fans to gain a different sense of the reaction
to Superman and more insight into findings from the first phase of the study.
During the first phase, I observed a small comic book store in an American Midwest town for most of its business day on March 12, 1997. I had been a long-time regular customer in the store and after joining a local role-playing game group at the invitation of that store’s owner, I developed a friendship with the owner that offered me a unique chance to gain many perspectives in the shop. While this relationship conveniently expedited this study, the comic book store was chosen as the cultural scene of analysis for several other reasons as well. The comic book store is the first place that most comic book fans will encounter the presence of the new Superman. A comic book store also offered an opportunity to see and hear fans express themselves directly. Unlike the internet, the comic shop allows the possibility of richer description. Determining age, ethnicity, gender, and many other factors on the internet is often a matter of guessing in the dark. Like comic book fans, comic book stores have not been studied well in the past. Thus phase
one allowed a chance to fill in that knowledge gap.
While there is enormous value in ethnographic and participant/observation investigations in a cultural scene, phase one was conducted as an observation. As a “regular” at this comic shop, my presence is not conspicuous but unfortunately fandom has its share of stigma. Jenkins notes that the public largely regards media fans as asexual, uncritical people who need to get a life. I wanted to carefully manage my chances of invoking that stigma. As Virginia Fry, Alison Alexander, and Donald Fry argue from Goffman’s stigmatization theory, stigma is a potential awaiting activation. The potentially stigmatized person can encounter three types of people: one’s own, the wise, and all other individuals. The nature of that other person encountered, Fry, Alexander, and Fry suggest, will alter how a consumer of a stigmatized cultural product will construct and express their own subjective view of an objective cultural product in order to save face. People in the first category share the same stigma and are interacted with in a relatively open manner. Members of the wise, a group of unstigmatized people who are sympathetic to the stigma, are also relatively safe to interact with. Others present a problem because the potentially stigmatized person must always guard against speech acts that will reveal
his or her stigma and result in a loss of face.
Although I agree with Jenkins that straddling the realms of academia and fandom puts the researcher in a unique position to both analyze and be responsible to both communities, I elected not to disclose my identity as a researcher in the cultural scene for fear of invoking such stigma in my informants. Even Amesley, who encountered a plethora of friendly and helpful informants in her early study of Star Trek viewers, could not avoid invoking some stigma. At the end of her research she noted that no matter how deeply involved they were with the series, none of her informants ever described themselves as a fan to her. Encounters with informants at the comic store alone offered me little chance to prevent stigmatization.
As a life long avid fan of comics who began taking Superman seriously after the 1986 revamp, I also worried that my own understanding of the character would interfere with other fans’ expressions of identity. Personally, I looked forward to the new Superman. At the time, I had enormous respect for the creative teams on all five Superman comics: Action Comics, Adventures of Superman, Superman, Superman: The Man of Steel, and Superman: The Man of Tomorrow. Just as the Death of Superman had before, this change offered a chance for the creative team to tell some interesting new stories. I was anxious to see what would happen to Superman
but I did not want to press my views upon others.
In order to minimize potential stigma and avoid impressing my own opinions, I decided that my primary task in phase one was to observe, not interact. I adopted a manner I felt would help me blend into the scene. During the observation I avoided initiating any conversations about comics and did not mention my stance on Superman. Only once did I feel it necessary to reveal my status as a researcher in order to allay the fears of a customer who noticed my note taking. During phase one I gathered data as innocuously as possible. I pretended to peruse back issues of comics in order to be near some groups. When opportunities arose I made field notes in the office section of the store. I also used that position to monitor conversations at the register. My aim throughout this phase was not to seek neutrality, but rather to learn from the people and the space while being aware of my own role as a fan
and researcher. Doing so was most informative, because many surprises occurred.
The second and third phases of this study were opportunities to further investigate preliminary findings based on the observation and were particularly useful in dealing with surprises that occurred. The second phase took place in mid-April. I met with Bruce Gordon, the storeowner, after the store closed on a Tuesday evening. Bruce is a white male in his mid-twenties. We walked around the store discussing its history and design logic. My initial observation period had revealed the owner to be central to the conversation patterns in the store, so we also discussed his reaction to the new Superman and some of the preliminary findings from phase one. This conversation was taped
and reviewed for analysis.
The third phase also took place in mid-April. The storeowner recommended three people who read Superman and who were regular customers of the store since its opening. I met with each person for about forty minutes in my office on campus. All three interviewees were white males. Two, Clark Nearing and Jim Cassidy, were college students in their mid-twenties while the other, Terry Henderson, was a married middle school teacher in his late-thirties. In an unstructured interview, I asked each interviewee to tell me about his history with comics and his reaction to the changes in Superman. We also discussed the way that visits to the comic store fit into their lives. To supplement phase three, I also solicited comments about the new Superman via e-mail from Jack Walker and Greg Batson, two white male commercial artists. Jack is in his late-twenties while Greg is in his mid-thirties. The goal was to further qualitative understanding, not achieve quantitative representation and generalizabilty. All of the discussions were enjoyable and I learned much from what these people shared with me. I will begin my discussion of what I learned by describing the cultural scene of the comic shop on the
day that the blue Superman arrived.
The Day Superman Changed
When I arrived at the store on a cool, windy morning at about 10:00a.m. on March 12, I found a place of business waiting for comics and customers to arrive. To Bruce’s regret, the store sits off the town’s main street of business in a mini-mall. The only entrance to the store is in a long archway created by the residential units a floor above. The fixtures inside mostly block the glass windows of the store, bright promotional posters of comic book characters hide those fixtures’ less than pleasant backsides while
making the shop’s purpose obvious.
Inside, the store is designed to meet the strolling habits of the typical customer. Bruce has read in trade magazines that the browser will turn right upon entering a store and will sweep through it counterclockwise. Thus, while the counter and cash register is immediately to the left upon entry, several long boxes of discount comics are on a table to the right. Long boxes are made of cardboard. They hold about 350 upright comics for browsing. Lidless, these boxes hold stock that Bruce hopes to get rid off. Mostly they are back issues of comics he inherited along with the shop’s fixtures when he
bought the store years ago.
Next to the discount comics is the heart of the store, the new comics rack. About six feet high, its three main shelves are subdivided into four tiers. On this morning, the middle shelf is empty, awaiting the delivery of comics. Last week’s comics have been moved to the shelf above, while comics from
two weeks ago are on the bottom shelf.
Along the back wall are the nine long boxes of bagged back issues. These comics are more valuable than those in the discount box. Divided up by title, the comics might be 17 years old, although on average they were published about five or six years ago. Each comic is sealed in the same plastic bags collectors use to protect their investments from the elements. Above the table, four shelves of action figures in their blister packs look down awaiting purchase. Just next to the back issue table on the wall across from the door, is a smaller version of the new comics rack. On its two shelves, the rack holds the republished collection of comic book stories called trade paperbacks. Next to them are three more shelves the size of the new comics shelf. They hold the past four or five month’s worth of any given title of comics. These comics are discounted thirty percent. A metallic turning rack of newer action figures is in front of these shelves, roughly at the center of the store. Beside the shelves, directly across from the store’s entrance, are a series of flat shelves. They hold collectible card sets, comic supplies such as bags, and unusually sized toys that don’t fit on the shelves in the back
of the store.
When I entered the store that morning, Bruce was at the counter. Surrounded by four shelves of more valuable comics on the walls, he sat on a stool behind a locked glass display case filled with expensive action figures and fragile items. Behind Bruce on the floor are the plastic milk crates containing the subscription lists. Many regular customers of the store have their comics “pulled” for them and held in paper bags in these crates. Customers want their comics pulled for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is keeping up with the next installment of superheroic serial adventures. Another reason is that comics are produced in finite runs. Rarity is a major factor in determining the value of a particular issue in the shadow cultural economy of comics collection. If an issue is missed, a person may have to expend additional efforts in order to find the issue someplace else and, if the issue is in scarce supply, may also have to expend more capital to acquire the issue. Every Wednesday, pulling comics while stocking the shelves
is therefore a major task.
Behind Bruce, a partial divider sets off a small office area with a desk, computer, microwave, and fridge. A radio on the desk played 70s rock. Bruce was enthusiastic that morning. He had been looking forward to the study. He was also proud because the day before he learned that his store was among the top 2,500 in the country in sales. We talked for a half-hour about my expectations for the study. At 10:30a.m., Bruce opened the store. Since Wednesday is the day the new comics arrive, it is also the day that the store opens earliest.
A few minutes later, the distant rumble of the arriving UPS truck surprised us. Bruce smiled as the driver brought the boxes in. The new comics are rarely this early. The later in the day they arrive, the harder Bruce’s job becomes. Bruce stocks the new comic shelf first and then pulls comics. If many customers are in the store, Bruce has to pull comics and wait on customers. This creates an environment that Clark succinctly calls “tense” as Bruce worries that his regular customers will not get their comics. As Clark, Jim, and Terry indicated in their interviews, good customer service is the main reason they come to the store. Missed comics that are not pulled jeopardize the
perceived quality of customer service.
I helped Bruce put out and pull the comics that morning in order to view the process up close. No customers came in during that time. Following Bruce’s directions, I placed comics on the shelf. More popular titles go on the front tier. Books related to Marvel’s popular X-Men go to the right of the shelf. There were actually two versions of Superman #123 put out that week. One had the glow-in-the-dark cover while the other had a different illustration that did not glow. Both version were priced the same, which is unusual as in the past special covers cost more in these types of promotions. The two versions were placed in the center on the front of the shelf. Anticipating a possibility for increased sales, Bruce ordered more copies of Superman #123 than he normally would. He had 20 copies of the special cover and ten
of the other.
Bruce remarked that the comics got up on the shelves quicker than usual because I had helped and no one came in the store. Before we pulled comics, he took a moment to flip through Superman #123, saying he was “happy to be able to.” Pulling comics involved getting the black three-ring binder from the office. Each customer who submits a subscription list gets a discount rate based on how many comics they buy a month. A page for each customer listed the titles that were wanted. Bruce called out the titles and I took them off the shelves. He then put them in brown paper bags and labeling them with the names and discount rate of the customer. The process
also went a little faster than normal.
The rest of the morning passed rather slowly. Customers drifted in every so often. Although Bruce later told me that he “tries to treat all the customers the same,” there was a noticeable difference in how some customers are treated. The difference was obvious once someone entered the store. Bruce greeted the ones he knew enthusiastically by name and they would return that enthusiasm. This greeting established the sense of who were the regulars in the cultural scene. Strangers were typically met with a polite hello and allowed to browse for a few moments before Bruce asked them if they needed help finding anything. Bruce would quickly hand a subscription bag to anyone he had pulled comics for and that person would usually go
over to the new comics shelf to peruse other comics not on their list.
Throughout the day, the overwhelming majority of customers were males. A total of 53 people entered the store when I was observing and only three of them were women. Most of the customers were white and in their early to mid-twenties. Most customers dressed casually. Bruce was familiar with many of the customers. This familiarity gave the entire day a feel of ritual friendly visits among
friends instead of impersonal commercial transactions.
A man and woman in their thirties came in together around 11:20a.m.. Their closeness suggested to me that they were a couple. Bruce was very excited to see them because he had news from a trade magazine that Rob Liefeld, a comics writer/artist whose level of skill and overall career are a matter of great fan controversy, had been fired from the “Heroes Reborn” project at Marvel. In many ways, Liefeld is the man fans love to hate. He had been assigned to revamp Captain America and the Avengers in a similar manner to the way Superman was revamped in the 80s. Many fans felt that Liefeld was not up to that task and had done an extremely poor job. Bruce knew that this couple shared that opinion, a fact confirmed by their glee
at hearing the news.
This routine was re-enacted many times throughout the day and I became aware of the important news function that Bruce plays for his customers. When asked later, Bruce characterized this news as “creative news.” He felt that his customers were not interested in some of the extreme minutia of the comics business, such as the details of Marvel’s bankruptcy deal. Rather, they wanted to know about the shifts in creative teams on their favorite books or upcoming storylines. All of this news represented advanced warning of moments that would cause fans to reconsider their identities.
News of the new Superman had spread in a similar way in January.
Business picked up around the lunch hour. The phone rang several times and Bruce told each person calling that the new comics had arrived. For Clark, this call is part of the ritual of visiting the store on Wednesday. While other visits on other days might have other meanings, my interviews with Clark, Jim, and Terry, as well as my own experiences, revealed that Wednesday is about new comics. For many customers, there seems to be no point in being in the store until those new comics arrive. This is another reason that late comics delivery can create a tense atmosphere in the store.
As the business picked up in the afternoon and there were more customers together in the store at the same time, a surprising pattern became evident. The pattern gave the store a curious dual identity as a public and private cultural space. There were many conversations to be heard that day, but those conversations fell into two broad groups: conversations between Bruce and a customer and conversations between people who already knew one another. Few conversations in the store did not involve Bruce in some way. On the rare instance that Bruce was not involved, the conversations took place between people who had entered the store together and who clearly knew each other previously. Many times, three or four customers who did not know each other could stand within inches of each other in front of the new comics shelf and never make
eye contact or start a conversation.
Supplemental interviews suggested that this element of privacy was typical to the store. This was not necessarily an indication of fans reacting to stigma though. After all, in the comic shop, fans are in a safe space where they do not have to save face with unstigmatized others. Bruce himself felt that the ebb and flow of the customers throughout the day prevented enough people from being in the store to start a conversation. He never specified what this critical mass for conversation was though. Clark and Jim likened the pattern to the way that people usually react to strangers while shopping. Jim also suggested that because they were involved in an introverted activity, comic fans were naturally shy people to begin with. Terry does not start conversations with people he does not know because he does not want to get opinions that differ drastically from his own. He would rather enjoy his
hobby than defend it.
Another surprise from the observation period was that very little was actually said about the new Superman on the day the comic hit the stands. Earlier in the day, a few people had picked up the Superman comics and flipped through them, but little was said. Just after lunch, for example, two men in their early twenties came into the store together. At the new comics shelf one picked up a glow-in-the-dark version and asked his friend “Did you see this?” The friend’s response was a disinterested “No.” A moment later the friend flipped through the book himself and put it back on the shelf. It was not until 3:00p.m. that anyone spoke to Bruce on the matter. A customer in his forties, who had spent about fifteen minutes browsing at the new comics shelf, struck up a brief conversation with Bruce as Bruce rang up his comics at the register. “How’s that Superman going?” he asked. Bruce said that sales had been slow. “Think it’ll change back?” the customer wondered. Bruce felt sure that Superman would, especially as slow as the sales had been. They went on to talk about all the other changes DC had made in the past few years such as the alterations in Aquaman and a new, younger Green Lantern. The man “admired DC’s risk taking” but in the end he did not reward the company for it. He
left the store without buying Superman #123.
Only two other people displayed any sort of excitement over the new Superman. Shortly after lunch, a young boy phoned. Bruce told me the boy was quite anxious to know if the new Superman was in and Bruce thought it was funny that the boy was worried the book might sell out in light of how slow the book had sold. Around 3:30, a boy of about ten-years-old wearing a red cap practically burst into the store and went right to the shelf and snatched up a new Superman comic. He was, interestingly enough, the only person under the age of eighteen to enter the store that day. Children are not a complete novelty for a comic store. Terry told me that he and his young son share their hobby. However, it has been a long time that comic collecting has been the universal childhood hobby it is often still thought to be. For a few moments the kid in the cap paced anxiously about the store looking at other comics, then he dashed to the register with the special cover Superman #123. Bruce did not recognize the boy but felt certain his was the same voice from the earlier phone call. Short of the mundane conversation to complete the financial transaction, the boy said nothing and dashed out
as anxious as he’d come in.
The last big mention of Superman came just before business slowed down about an hour before closing at 6:00p.m.. A young man about twenty years old came in. After Bruce gave him his subscription bag, he went over to the new shelf rack and upon seeing the new Superman shouted over to Bruce with surprise “It’s here!” His opinion of the new look was not good though. He went on to predict that this would “go the way of Krypto” (Superboy’s beloved pet who was phased out in the 1986 revamp). He asked Bruce if the new Superman was similar to the Ray, another DC character with energy powers, and Bruce replied that he thought so but was not sure because he had not read the book. The young man then took up the habit of referring to the new Superman in a derogatory fashion as “Quantum Queen”, a name he introduced after remarking on the costume. The two other customers in the store listened in on the exchange but did not participate. When the two other customers bought their comics and left, the young man who had been browsing at the new comic shelf started to go to, saying that he did not want to keep Bruce from closing up the shop. When Bruce told him that there was another hour left to go, the man went back to the new shelf. The man waited a moment and then, holding up the issue, he told Bruce “This offends me.” When Bruce asked why he felt that way, the young man replied “Where’s the red? How can he be the Last Son of Krypton with lightning coming out of his eyeballs? He’s now the Quantum Queen!” The man’s tone of voice suggested a stand-up comedy routine. His tone became more conversational though when he began discussing other titles such as the Teen Titans with Bruce. He left after paying for his comics a few
minutes later. Not surprisingly, he did not buy Superman #123.
The rarity of direct comments about Superman initially puzzled and discouraged me. After all, I had predicated my study on the expectation that I would find a sense of community among fans as they debated this new Superman. At first, I suspected that Bruce might have avoided mentioning the new Superman to customers for fear of influencing my study. When I asked him about this in our subsequent interview, he assured me that this was not the case. Interestingly enough, I found that Bruce is very conscious of his integrity as a shop owner. He feels that he can only recommend a book “if it’s something I’ve read.” Since he had not read the new Superman on the day I observed his store, he felt there was little he could add to DC Comic’s efforts to promote the book and that he had little to discuss about it. In my conversations with the other informants, I learned that this integrity is an important part of the customer service equation that draws customers to Bruce’s store. Both Clark and Jim related to me how they had stopped patronizing the town’s other comic book store because its previous owner had pressured them to buy more comics. It was clear to them that this owner had not read the books he promoted and that his only motivation was to increase his profits. In the commercial scheme of things, fans may be relatively powerless, but they will use what little power they have, their dollars, to reward their own. Bruce had demonstrated he was one of them, and given a choice, their patronage
would reward him and allow his store, their space, to survive.
Accepting Bruce’s assurances that he had done nothing unusual that day, I began to wonder about the curious lack of commentary on the new Superman. All of the people I communicated with after the observation period had definite, well-thought out opinions about Superman based on their lifelong (in many cases this means decades) of experience with the character. Although he admitted to saying “they can’t be doing this to my Superman” when he first heard of the change, Clark Nearing was my only informant who liked the change in Superman. He felt that the creative team had done this in the “best interest of the story.” Greg Batson, who was not looking forward to the change, was negative but kind in his assessment. He wrote: “I think the costume and powers are neat BUT not on Superman. He already has the perfect costume. It’s an icon. If you have really good writers you don’t need such superfluous (pun) gimmicks.” Jim Cassidy felt that the change was part of “the little games that companies will play.” He was disappointed with the alteration, saying “I’d rather remember Superman as he was, with the regal red cape, than as a figure skater.” Of the change, Terry Henderson said, “I don’t know that it’s necessary.” Noting his long experience with the character, he said, “I’m traditional in the fact that Superman is Superman!” Jack Walker wrote succinctly of the new Superman: “This is absolutely one of the dumbest things ever in the history of comics.” Interestingly, Jim and Terry also suggested that despite listing the comics as some of their absolute favorites, they would eventually quit reading the Superman family of comics if this change
proved to be more than temporary.
These definite opinions, coupled with the many negative reactions published in the Superman letter pages, suggests that it is the cultural scene of the comic shop itself and not a vacillating attitude on the part of fans that resulted in the surprising lack of comments about the new Superman. While academics tend to theorize audiences as enormously active, these theoretical stances often come from research in places like conventions or from interviews where other cultural forces are not at play. As previously noted, there is a powerful sense of privacy that guides speech and behavior in a comic book store. This privacy is akin to shopping experiences in other retail stores. Fandom is an expression of identity, but in the comic book store, that expression is curtailed in order to offer a form of identity protection. Comic book fans avoid conversations with other fans they do not already know. Instead, fans primarily interact with storeowners and these interactions are inherently limited. To avoid offending the customer, the storeowner must be perceived by that customer to be speaking about a comic from a base of experience. Otherwise a purely commercial motivation will be inferred. This forces the conversation to take the character of what Clark called
a “chat” rather than an open contention for cultural meaning.
As the “Wizard Top 100” reported, the glow-in-the-dark version of Superman #123 was the highest ordered comic for the month of March 1997. The other cover version placed 43rd for that month. Orders do not guarantee in-store sales though. Bruce’s discount box is full of special issues that did not sell at levels equal to the promotional hype. At the end of the day I observed Bruce still had seven glowing cover copies and six plain cover copies remaining on the shelf. Reflecting on sales around the period of my observation, Bruce told me “Nobody is beating down the door to get this week’s actual issue of Superman.” Still, the story has not hurt Superman either. According to Bruce, many months after the change, sales “stayed the same.” He added, “I’ve not adjusted
my orders at all.”
For over a year, Superman remained in his new “electrical outlook,” a term Bruce coined for the change. Superman eventually split into two energy beings known, in an homage to a classic Silver Age story, as Superman Red and Superman Blue. Many fans predicted correctly that this division meant that it would not be long until the familiar red cape was seen flying over Metropolis once again. On April 1, 1998, Superman returned to his traditional powers and costume (reported in “Classic Supes”). Despite their threats, Terry and Jim never did quit reading the Superman books. Exercising enormous patience, they simply waited the change out. The connection between fans and their favorite characters is powerful. The desire to avoid gaps in a collection and the slightest curiosity about what happens next in a serial narrative can act as strong forces on the comic fan. All the while, Bruce maintained that there was little impact on sales. Inside and outside the store itself, fans continued to talk, as they still do, about Superman
and his comic book cohorts in complex and contextually influenced ways.
This investigation supports the value in making the familiar unfamiliar in research. Had I taken a more direct approach in the store, I would not have encountered the communication patterns that I did. Prior to this study, I experienced this comic shop as a place of energy and abundant conversation, but afterwards I wondered how much I was like the people I saw that day. My conversations had been with Bruce or with people I had known before. Checking my initial instincts to interview directly in the store allowed me to avoid a self-fulfilling
Ultimately, this study suggests that fans express themselves differently according to cultural scene and space. Many fan studies seek fans out in places where they congregate. Going to them online or at conventions is certainly understandable. Doing so definitely eases the already complicated tasks involved in audience research. However, we cannot speak to fans at a convention and expect to generalize their meaning making activities to other locales such as the home or the place where they purchase cultural products. A fan who is active in one location may be absolutely silent in another. A cultural studies approach has brought us to an appreciation of context and the need to understand
its role in cultural meaning.
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Studies in Popular Culture and Popular Music & Society. If you’re reading this on a Wednesday, then chances are right now he’s reading a big stack of comic books. You can reach Mike at firstname.lastname@example.org