Reading as a community activity.
“You’re doing it wrong.”
This family-favorite from the film Mr. Mom was on repeat in my mind the last few weeks leading up to attending my first New York Comic Con. I heard it when I set out my one-and-only Dr. Who-themed t-shirt and realized I had no other fandom clothing—let alone a costume—to wear for any of the other three days of the convention. I heard it when I glanced down the list of conference sessions, and my eyes glazed over reading all of the celebrity guests’ names I did not recognize. And I especially heard it walking from the train station to the convention center listening to my more experienced friends’ conversation flitting from a TV show… to a book series… to a movie franchise… to a comic book universe… and all at a pace I could barely keep up with.
Although my friends assured me that there was no “wrong” way to do a Comic Con, I knew going in that my experience was going to be very different from theirs if I didn’t make quick study of the way they did Comic Con. This got me thinking. Reading has long been viewed as a solitary, cognitive activity. It has only been fairly recent that the social aspects of literacy have been documented by researchers looking into differing ways groups of people are literate. In some communities image or word-play or graphs are attended to closely while in other communities these same features are merely used for decoration. What is offered as evidence, considered a solid argument, or declared a moving passage of prose differs as well, and not only by personal preference, but also by community standard. Even when a young child is curled up alone silently flipping pages, she is interpreting the text in ways influenced by the communities around her.
I realized this weekend that fandom, and the ways that fanboys and fangirls read and write, illuminate the social nature of a seemingly solitary activity. So I’ve been on the lookout for the distinct social practices that I could adopt to enrich my Comic Con experience. I thought I’d share three I’ve figured out so far. For each practice, I’ve also imagined ways librarians could leverage it for the library space.
I quickly learned that part of navigating Comic Con was preparing for very long lines. As I eavesdropped on the conversations happening around me, I noticed a young man to my right was engrossed in a pre-release of a comic on his iPad and a lady to my left was speculating on which storyline was going to be taken up in an upcoming movie release. The fans around me were not only waiting for a seat in the next session: they were waiting for a book publication or a next episode or a next issue. This anticipation not only builds excitement, it influences the way the media is read once it is released. Take the blockbuster movies based on Marvel and DC Comics. The fan community rarely, if ever, responds to a new release like the general public—and its responses are often highly critical. Fan expectations for a film shape how it is ultimately received.
In libraries, activities such as book release parties take advantage of this excitement, but even more could be done to anticipate along with young people. In preparation for a release, the library could host a re-reading party of previous installments. Youth could submit their predictions for the next release, making informed guesses about which characters will be featured or even what the book covers will look like. We know that book trailers are all the rage, but many educators (and therefore students) don’t know how easy it is to create them. Using just my smart phone, a free app called Animoto, and four pictures I had taken earlier in the day, I made a book trailer for my writing group’s next issue of our literary magazine in just five minutes.
Fans know creators, writers and artists, and I mean know them.
In one session, I overheard the following:
“Terry Pratchett was knighted? I didn’t know he was knighted.”
“Yes. Sir Terry Pratchett was knighted and he smelted the iron ore to make the sword the Queen used to knight him in his own backyard.”
Not only is the amount of trivia tossed about at Comic Con impressive, the background knowledge fans have about the authors and illustrators of pop culture media goes beyond trivia. Fans conduct the ultimate author studies. They can identify the stylistic quirks of writers from a snippet of dialogue (especially if that dialogue was written by Joss Whedon). They can explain the ways artists have developed over their careers including the various series they’ve drawn. Fans use this knowledge to have terrific debates and to make decisive recommendations.
Pop culture is not just contemporary, however—it has history that is considered significant to the understanding of it. Some storylines and authors extend over generations, which means that libraries can facilitate inter-generational sharing of this knowledge. In addition, displays could be set up to show books in the order of an illustrator’s career. Young people could be invited to respond to the changes they notice across the different series and over the history of the artist’s work.
Fans are co-creators.
Comic Con may be most famous to the general public for its cosplay (dressing up as characters, objects and even concepts from pop culture). In this obvious way, fans are not just consumers, but makers of media themselves. From dancing to signage to constant insider knowledge references, fans appropriate, remix, and embody the iconography, language and ideas of media in playful, creative and energetic ways.
Last week when I was out running, I noticed someone had included a Doctor Who reference on a construction boards lining the Brooklyn Bridge which had been taken over by tourists’ signatures. In the series the words “Bad Wolf” show up for several episodes before it is clear what they reference. No spoilers here, but it is a very ominous sign. I stopped dead in my tracks and had to document and remix the message of “Bad Wolf” for myself. Being new to fandom, this was one of my first experiences enjoying the witty, creative energy fans and Comic Con regulars enjoy. I can only imagine the energy at a library hosting a FanFiction Festival for which youth submit their own versions of their favorite stories, or a Mini-Con where guests are encouraged to come as their favorite characters to read, watch and discuss media together. On a simpler scale, youth could gather their favorite one-liners or icons from various series to display around the library space.
My friends were right. I had no reason to fear being the new kid at New York Comic Con. I have even learned how to enjoy the hour-long lines. I fill my time with critical discussions of author’s intent, inside jokes from Firefly to Sherlock Holmes, and blissful anticipation. Not only can I see the many ways these social practices could be employed in library programming, I can imagine that recognizing the social nature of reading and creating space for that within our libraries can similarly create opportunities for young people to explore, make and learn. As Michael Maziekien suggested in an ALA-sponsored session at NYCC, because librarians codify, filter, maintain and deliver, they act as modern day oracles like in the myths of old. Librarians are perfectly positioned to create imaginative, engrossing, learning environments that leverage the social practices inherent in reading the texts available through the library.
[Author’s Note: I have noticed other more problematic fandom social practices which I’ve chosen not to highlight, but are important to recognize and interrogate. Peter Gutierrez has previously discussed several aspects of these issues from gender, violence and sexualization to commercialization, branding and access. I’d suggest checking those posts out.]
Anna Smith is a teacher, teacher educator and educational researcher. The co-author (with Richard Andrews) of Developing Writers: Teaching and Learning in the Digital Age (Open University Press, 2011), her educational interests cross school and non-school contexts and include composition in the digital age, theories of writing development, and global youth. Her latest posts on these topics can be found at Developing Writers and via Twitter: @writerswriting.