"Screaming Loudest"
Posted by: Mark Hughes (Follow @MARKHUGHESFILMS)
July 9, 2009

Perhaps the most well known stereotype of fanboys can be found in "Trekkies" -- or "Trekkers," as they now prefer to call themselves. Fanboys are that legion of fandom knowledgeable about the most intricate (and often arcane) details and nuances of the object of their affection, typically to an obsessive degree. They are often consumed by both love for and a most critical eye toward the subject matter, with an intricate awareness of "canon" as they see it and little patience for anything breaching those boundaries.

In the realm of comic book fandom, fanboys are at once vitally necessary yet usually the biggest obstacle for any writer of comics or film adaptations. The single biggest problem stems from the fact that adaptation to film requires some degree of deviation from the source material and "cannon", which in the eyes of most fanboys is a cardinal sin.

At the same time, fanboys can also be the most enthusiastic audience even for film adaptations that deviate substantially from the source material, as is the case with the first two X-MEN films, for example. It is a sort of love-hate relationship that these fans have with the comics and with the films those books inspire.

I think that the role of fans and fanboys has changed significantly over the last decade, as the source medium and film adaptations themselves have undergone major shifts. The rise of the Internet -- particularly in the last ten years -- has played a major part in the changing role of fans and fanboys. These factors have also, I believe, driven an increasingly large wedge between fans and fanboys.

Let's look at the Internet part of the equation first, so as to understand the medium that, above all others, has led to the increased influence of fans and fanboys while at the same time creating new divisions among fandom and dramatically shifting the role of fanboys from that of vital component to biggest obstacle for comic books and film adaptations.

One of the greatest benefits of the Internet -- it's power to act as a "great equalizer" -- has also become one of its worst aspects. It consigns a sense of pseudo-legitimacy to every concept, which has increasingly come to be viewed (and asserted) as equal validity. With the simplicity of making any claim and expressing any idea through a few keystrokes, one is inevitably assured of an audience. With that has come a loss of appreciation for working to establish credibility -- indeed, a disdain for the very notion now exists among a significant number of Internet users now), and an equal loss of skepticism or expectation of logic, evidence, or said credibility.

This is accompanied by a coarseness and overt hostility, and an embrace of lack of credibility as a sort of badge of honor, degrading the quality and integrity of discourse. No doubt, this is fueled by the anonymity breeding false courage among those who worship the "great equalization" that encourages the most coarse, degraded discourse as the voices which rise above the din. Screaming loudest, today, is a sacrament.

Not to say this hasn't always been true in our dialogue and public discourse to a certain extent, as reality TV and shock-jocks and pretty much every political campaign demonstrates. However, those were not emblematic of our entire culture of discourse, and in fact stood out in part precisely due to the nature of screaming loudest. It invited no small amount of condemnation and disdain among most of the public, and certainly was more a matter of screaming loudest among the screamers, rather than a broad sentiment governing all forms of discourse even within the context of TV, radio, or politics.

To be blunt and discuss the truth openly, it's necessary to honestly recognize that the conditions of discourse on the Internet are largely due to the collective methodology and behavior of young users. Teens and early-college-age online users are vastly more likely to engage in such behavior and have popularized it as the new accepted "voice" of Internet interaction. Not merely the coarseness and aggressive hostility as the operating accepted methodology, but even the growing vocabulary, are predominantly the creation of young users.

No doubt, this is partially the fault of older generations who tend to treat the views and voices of youth as unimportant, lacking seriousness, and largely without value. Finding a dominant means of global communication that at last grants them a measure of power long denied in the real world must be intoxicating. So it's no surprise that youth have embraced it and encouraged precisely those tendencies which eschew traditional notions of credibility and validity (not to mention propriety) -- those are, after all, concepts rooted in the societal values and methods of discourse which long ignored and silence voices of the young.

But it is also simply a case of immaturity granted broad reach and largely uncontrolled or checked by traditional social norms and balances. As these youthful online users have understandably grasped and exerted disproportionate power over online discourse, they have not needed -- and seem quite proud of not merely the inability but also a refusal -- to attempt to mitigate or overcome immature impulses and displays of behavior. Indeed, it seems that such immaturity is on large display because it is enhanced and encouraged by the nature of online discourse and interaction. One is free to be as immature as they wish, and doing so typically makes your voice louder while discouraging your critics.

This all relates very directly to comic book fanboys and fandom. Fanboys -- and I should note that despite the gender implied by the term, we're talking about males and females, obviously -- are mostly younger, in their teens and sometimes very early twenties. Of course you find the stereotype 30-somethings who are major fanboys and live a life that centers around comics in an often obsessive manner -- but despite jokes about living in their mothers basement and so on, most fanboys are from the ranks of the young.

I say this with certainty based on the simple fact of comic book readership, which tends to be heavily youth-oriented, and the fact that as readers get older their purchasing habits tend to drop-off. That means the people most likely to be regular readers of multiple titles every month are the teen and early-college-age fans. The typical behavior of fanboys likewise clearly demonstrates tendencies typical of that age group. And with the Internet, we can see more clearly than ever the most common attitudes and means of expression employed by the fanboys -- precisely those attitudes and behavior emblematic of youthful online users.

Whereas pre-Internet fandom relied on conventions, comic book shops, school, and occasional movies to meet up and interact with other fans, and where expression of their personal wishes and views about the source material relied on letters to the editor and spending (or not spending) their cash each month on comics, suddenly the Internet provided quite a different set of circumstances. Fans could meet in chat rooms, establish their own sites, send e-mail and instant messages, organize without the need of even leaving their bedrooms, and so on.

What happened is that ideas and opinions about even the most minor aspects of storyline and character could be expressed loudly and en mass. Something that might have previously been barely worth mentioning -- say, for example, the number of points at the bottom of Batman's chest-emblem -- could become a source of serious debate and criticism. Fans could previously enjoy a comic book film even with many alterations in the adaptation, and the film could be considered largely faithful and a good depiction that fans could enjoy. However, once a person could scream about the most minor nuance of "cannon" by moving their fingers over a keyboard, knowing that thousands and potentially millions of fans around the world would hear them, no issue was too small to complain about anymore.

At first, this situation was a good thing. Fans could truly let their voices be heard, and could make the case that they are a big and important audience for these films. Fans can, through word of mouth and online buzz and real-world encouragement to their friends and families, help a film achieve much larger audiences. Fans also helped push film studios to look more closely at the source medium and recognize it as a serious art form worthy of respectful treatment on film. It became possible for studios and comic book publishers to really get feedback on what makes characters popular and what fans most want to see, which of course helps the publishers and studios produce a product more aligned with the tastes of their target audience.

This change is part of what fueled the current "golden age" of comic book films, I believe. It helped push the studios to adopt a new approach to the films, and the quality and commitment to that quality increased among filmmakers. And when that happened, the widespread appeal and popularity -- and thus profitability -- of the film genre became apparent and has come to dominate the summer box office. To do so, however, it was inevitable that the adaptations at once borrowed more heavily from the best and most popular aspects from the source material while also making changes (often, improvements) in the attempt to appeal to the expanded audience generated for the films.

And something strange happened. As the films came to more accurately reflect the source material, and to take it more seriously while trying to be more faithful, fandom developed a growing split. A small group emerged for whom the rise of faithfulness and respectful treatment of comics on film gave rise to increased expectations to meet those fans' own personal sense of what's important and how it should be portrayed.

This group of fans come overwhelmingly from the ranks of fanboys. They see themselves and their interests validated by the increased faithfulness and quality of the film adaptations, not to mention the mass popularity of the films. This has made them even more demanding, to a fault. The closer the films get to being respectful, high-quality adaptations, the less tolerance these fans have for even the slightest deviations from the source material -- or, more accurately, from their own personal sense of the source material and the "best" stories and characterizations.

This is partly due to the sense of empowerment stemming from the increased faithfulness, quality, and popularity of the films. It is also partially due perhaps to a sense that their previous sense of "rejection" due to their fandom (because let's face it, for most of comic fandom's history, it wasn't considered "cool") is now being overcome, which makes it harder to tolerate the remaining sense of "rejection" of their particular views and commitment to absolute faithfulness as they see it. Feeling so close to acceptance of their views, the remaining degree of perceived "rejection" might seem almost unbearable.

And so these fanboys have become increasingly intolerant of deviations from or disagreement over their own personal view about what is or is not correct, "best", and so on. Within the online community, their expression of this intolerance rises into a loud and frequently shrill voice filled with all of the coarseness of degraded discourse typical of Internet interaction, and glaringly displaying a level of immaturity -- and pride about their coarseness and immaturity -- that creates a broad impression of fans and fanboys based upon this lowest common denominator. But like all things online, once again it's a matter of screaming loudest and getting the most attention, even when that attention is not only counterproductive to their own arguments but also for fandom in general.

They are breeding and encouraging the stereotype of fans as young, immature, intolerant fanboys who make unreasonable demands arising from intolerant personal expectations that their own personal opinion and desires be immediately and fully met on-demand. This is even just a bad stereotype of fanboys themselves, because most likely just as fanboys are a subgroup of fans in general, the shrill and obnoxious fanboys are themselves surely only a subset of most fanboys. But they are the loudest, and as is true in most things in life, the people who are most obsessed and intolerant of anything different from their own personal wishes are also the people most likely to take loud action to make their views heard.

I believe that much of the problem stems partly from a simple failure to recognize and/or accept that the inherent differences in the comic book and film mediums necessitates certain degrees of changes during adaptation due to modern, mainstream sensibilities and the reality that what works in drawn comic books sometimes just won't translate onto the screen.

Cloth costumes, for example, will only work in some instances, depending on broad audience sensibilities related to the "seriousness", "weight", and perceived "realism" of the characters and situations. The inherent and automatic suspension of disbelief required for Superman is immediately understood, appreciated, and accepted by mainstream film audiences. His costume just seems less absurd because the context is quite different in the eyes of audiences, as compared for example to Batman, where people relate on a very different level.

Consider how similar this really is to the fact that comic book fans accept the constraints that make it easier and more acceptable to draw Batman without overt armor. The cloth costumes in comic books sometimes would look quite silly in real life, and film adaptations make a necessary adjustment when necessary. Film and comic book audiences are more sophisticated and discerning in their tastes nowadays, so expectations have changed -- and must be met -- accordingly.

This can be seen in comic books as well, with the introduction of more mature subject matter and not only testing the boundaries and possibilities of the medium, but also challenging readers to rethink the characters and how we relate to them. Yet, fanboys seem not to have made the connection between what they accept in comics as a necessity (cloth costumes in appearance) or as introduction of changes to meet more sophisticated sensibilities and to challenge the readers' perceptions, and similar needs to accept and change source material for film adaptations.

Some of the worst examples of fanboy mentality have surfaced with regard to Batman films. Besides the typical and ultimately childish daily activities such as rudeness, obsessing over absolute fealty to characters and imagery of even the most trivial sort, and other expected fanboy behavior, there are those who engage in more condemnable behavior and use the Internet to spread their messages/actions to a broader viewing audience.

For example, the spreading of illicit images from THE DARK KNIGHT across the Internet caused a lot of problems. Fanboys can be obsessive in their desire to obtain any little word or piece of information about the object of their affection/obsession, and this has reached new heights in recent years. Illegal recordings of films and posting them to YouTube, spreading of illicit imagery, stolen scripts, and so on have become commonplace and helps make the already negative stereotype of fanboys even worse.

Chris Nolan and Christian Bale have also been the targets of banal fanboy rants and attacks, arising from the self-obsessed nature of fanboys who actually assert that they have an inherent "right" to get another Batman film from Nolan, and an equal "right" to be given information immediately. Further, fanboys react to even the potential of Nolan leaving the franchise with comments of the most abusive, vulgar, and immature sort.

And to again be blunt, the younger the fans, the more inclined they are toward the most absurd and childish behavior. That's sort of natural, in that immaturity and childishness tend to arise from immature children, of course. Still, the access to widespread voice and attention encourages such fanboys to act up even more than might be normal, and the nature of the Internet helps portray these worst fanboys as if they are representative of all fanboys and fans in general.

This in turn reinforces some of the worst misconceptions about not just fanboys and fans, but about the source medium and films as well. It's much easier, for example, for Bill Maher to argue that these films are ignorant productions designed for immature children, when the loudest and most widespread voices of fans seem to be immature children who frequently argue and lobby for some of the most ignorant reasons and concepts.

Nor does it help promote the image of fandom that should be put forward if we want Warner Bros., Marvel, and other studios and filmmakers to take us seriously and maintain any measure of respect for us. If the growing impression becomes one of selfish, short-tempered brats who throw fits and scream and cast insults when they don't get their way, and who tend toward posting and collecting illicit images and video, it won't take long for the negative stereotype of fandom to impact the decision-making and attitude toward fans within the studios.

In short, fanboys in the modern era are increasingly turning into a caricature of themselves as the worst sort of fans, representing everything potentially wrong with hardcore fandom, and are helping to ruin and destroy the measure of respectability for the source material, the films, and the fans that has taken so long to win from mainstream audiences, critics, and studios. As this kind of behavior and mentality takes firm root among the worst segment of fanboys, it will continue to increase the already wide chasm between those fanboys and other fans, fracturing fandom and doing much harm to the ability of fandom to build on our successes in helping influence the publishers and filmmakers and winning respect for ourselves and the medium from the public at large.

In that context, if and when members of the press, the public, the publishers, and the studios exhibit disrespect and contempt toward fandom, we know precisely who to blame and who should feel no small measure of personal responsibility for helping reinforce all of the worst stereotypes. It will be increasingly difficult to be angry at such critics and dismissers, or to argue with them, when they point at the loudest, rudest, most ignorant and immature fanboys and say, "If that's the face you put forward, how do you expect us to react to it?"

Fandom deserves better...and MUST fight for it.

This means confronting those fanboys who are the worst problem, encouraging sites to monitor and moderate the behavior of users, speaking out loudly and forcefully -- and in a united voice -- against those types of fanboys, and using our own voices to provide a counter face for fandom to overshadow and replace the stereotypes and worst impressions created by a small group who have so far just managed to scream the loudest. - Mark Hughes

Longtime BOF contributor Mark Hughes work as a screenwriter for film & TV.
In a former life, Mark was a media specialist & campaign ad writer.
You can read Mark's Forbes.com blog, "Reel Estate," HERE.
and Follow him on Twitter @MARKHUGHESFILMS.

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