Some Thoughts on Fandom and Changing the World

I got to see Joss Whedon at Comic-Con this weekend. I'd been wanting to meet (or at least see) him for more than a decade. Judging from the fan questions, there are many people who feel that one of his iconic shows changed their life. I had that moment when I was listening to him speak and realized that I can effectively draw a straight line from my Buffy the Vampire Slayer obsession in the early 2000s to my presence at Comic-Con that very day.

On the surface, that doesn't seem hugely momentous. It's just a story and Comic-Con is just a convention. But when you're a fan and much of your interests, your friends, how you spend your time, how you see yourself, and maybe even your professional trajectory have been shaped by that fandom, it's kind of a big deal.

During the Firefly reunion panel, someone asked Joss what the fan response means to him and he answered,

“The way in which you guys have inhabited this world, this universe, have made you part of it, part of the story. You are living in Firefly. When I see you guys, I don't think the show is off the air. I don’t think there’s a show. I think, that's what the world is like. I think there are spaceships, there are horses, and our story is alive.”

As an academic with a focus on fan studies, I constantly run into the question of why fans are the way the way they are and why they do what they do. The go-to answer always seems to something involving "escapism" -- that fans are just really eager, or perhaps really desperate, to escape their "normal" life and take a mental vacation into a fictional universe. I'm sure that's part of it, but that always seems overly simplistic and dangerously close to the "get a life!" judgments that have long haunted fans. 

I think a better answer is connection. When Joss says that fans become "part of the story" because they love it so much, it hits on a very basic human impulse: to feel like we're part of something bigger than ourselves. It's not about escaping something bad or boring or unsatisfying, it's connecting with something amazing and beautiful and transcendent. The difference might seem semantic, but I think it's important.

I've said before that, until I went to Comic-Con, I never really got what the big deal about fan communities was. But in hindsight, a sense of community has been the foundation of my fandom from the beginning. I may not have been making regular convention pilgrimages or living on fan message boards, but I was already part of a community.  A community that was not only connected by our love for a particular TV show but, more than that, a willingness to really let ourselves feel and express and share that love.

I've heard people say that the defining characteristic of a nerd is that they just really care about something, whether that's Buffy or Harry Potter or Star Wars or science or music or even sports. If being a nerd means that you wear your fandom on your t-shirt and your proverbial heart on your sleeve, I don't want to be anything else. 

This spirit can be felt all over Comic-Con, but it hits me especially hard at Nerd HQ, a fan hang-out and charity event hosted by Chuck star Zachary Levi. I got to experience the first Nerd HQ last year and was eager to come back this year for the atmosphere, the chance to meet other fans, and the fantastic Conversations for a Cause.

To me, Nerd HQ is the perfect distillation of all that's great about fandom. It's not just the incredible community, but it's the sense that fandom can be an inspiration and a catalyst to do more with your life, to let your creativity flourish, and to help change the world. 

“I can't say exactly what Nerd HQ has inspired me to do yet. Right now I'm sitting on a feeling. It's bubbling up, electric, little by little. It makes me want to create, but I'm just not sure in what capacity right now. ... In the end, though, I think all I really want is to be a part of something that's bigger than myself. ... Nerd HQ felt like a boomerang; Levi and The Nerd Machine threw it out into the world, and when it came back to them, it did so with hundreds, if not thousands, of others who believed in their mission and not only wanted to help but actually did help.” (My Five Cents: Inspired By Zachary Levi and Nerd HQ, Made Possible by Pop Culture, July 15 2012)

Like DanielleTBD, I always come home from Comic-Con feeling inspired. Today, I'm sitting here writing this blog post and thinking about what I can do make the most of the energy that's bubbled up inside me. In a way, Comic-Con is like a 5 day journey into an alternate reality where anything is possible, where dreams come true, where there are spaceships and horses and stories are alive. It's a reminder that, in a world of cynicism and intolerance and mediocrity, there is another way. "If the world were a little bit more like Comic-Con," said Matt Smith in the Doctor Who panel, "then it would be a better place."