Reading Comic Cons

This guest post by research team member Brian Johnson reports on research conducted in his class at Carleton University on the media representations of comic cons.

How have comic and media fan conventions been represented in pop culture of the last several decades? How has the success and growth of the fan event sector over the course of this period affected popular depictions of media fandom events? Who makes these images? What kinds of cultural work do they do? And how might they affect the ways in which convention and festival organizers understand the function and meaning of their own events?

These are some of the core questions explored by student researchers last term in ENGL 4115/5900 “Reading Comic Con,” a seminar whose examination of the values and meanings ascribed to (largely fictionalized) comic cons in the North American cultural imaginary has been helping us think through a set of important media contexts that complement the project’s first major research activity of culturally mapping the North American comic con, comic arts festival, and related media fandom event sector.

Although fictionalized depictions of comic cons appeared sporadically as part of the self-referential style and fan-address of Marvel comics of the 1970s and 80s, it was not really until the 1990s and 2000s, coincident with the popular ascent of “geek culture” and the phenomenal upswing in convention activity throughout the 2000s, that comic and other media fan conventions became perennial settings in film, television, and fiction.

Cover of TV Guide issue with feature story on sci-fi convention–themed episode of Castle

Considering examples like Galaxy Quest and Big Bang Theory alongside the marketing materials of actual conventions and current scholarship in fan studies, students analyzed representations of comic cons in pop culture with attention to the often conflicting factors determining the cultural semiotics of a given representation, including: its date of production, its institutional pedigree and affiliations, its authorial (or directorial) positionings, its genre(s), its narrative and formal determinations, its audiences, and its contexts of circulation and consumption.

Students then identified a collection of core tropes and sensitizing concepts particular to these representations, as well as a standard set of enunciatory positions from which these tropes and concepts were typically deployed in widely circulated images of comic cons and fan events.

Their findings, which they presented at a capstone Symposium at Carleton University on April 4, 2018, suggest that comic con has a highly ambivalent status in the cultural imaginary of North American audiences. In film, television, comics, and fiction, representations of comic con have served and continue to serve a range of narrative, semiotic, and meta-referential, functions closely tied to the shifting fortunes of geeks and geek culture. The nature of such representations was found to vary widely depending on who has made them and for what kind of audience.

Students considered images of comic cons crafted as zany spectacles for the amusement of mainstream audiences, as fan-service and marketing exercises by media producers, as ambivalent fan-auteur critiques of the convention’s transformation from small fan-driven event to transmedia Hollywood gong show, and as a meta-referential trope for television series’ own practices of fan pedagogy.

This summer, seminar instructor Brian Johnson and members of the Reading Comic Con seminar are co-authoring an article that maps the major shifts in representations of comic and media fan conventions since the 1970s and explores the core tropes and narrative genres that inform these representations.

Other Kinds of Maps

This is the first post in a new category/series we’re calling Thinking Out Loud. The idea is to create some space on the project blog for hashing out ideas that are still somewhat in development.

We’ve got just under a week to go in our survey of convention organizers—if you ran a comic con, comic arts festival, or related media fandom event in North America during 2017 and haven’t taken it yet, please do check it out! The plan is to use the survey results to build a geo-located data set and, eventually, an interactive map of these events. We think we can learn a lot about cons, CAFs, and media fandom events by looking at where and when they happen.

In the meantime, however, I’ve been considering some other ways we might “map” what we’re calling the organizational field of comic cons and related events. One possibility I’ve been exploring while waiting for surveys to be completed is social network analysis.

The language of social networks is, of course, so normalized as to be almost cliché in our social media age. Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and the rest have taught us to think of our own relationships as networks—a collection of nodes connected to one another in a diagrammatic space. But social network analysis is a long-standing approach to representing the social world, and I have a hunch that it can show us some interesting things about comic cons.

For the last week or so, I’ve been spending a couple hours here and there visiting convention web sites and noting the guests they are advertising. For certain kinds of events, at least, guests and featured creators perform an important marketing function, not only providing a reason for fans of specific celebrities and creators to come but also to some extent signalling the kind of experience that will be had at that show.

Unfortunately, unlike the relationships constructed through social media platforms, there’s no way to do this automatically. It’s a slow, laborious process. So far, I’ve identified 1776 individual guests advertised in connection with 24 individual events (in some cases, for a past iteration and in some cases, for upcoming ones) and loaded them into the social network analysis platform Gephi. Here’s one version of what that looks like:

Test network of events (green) and their advertised guests (grey) produced with Gephi.

There’s obviously still a lot more work to be done to fill this out over the coming weeks and months. But some interesting questions are already presenting themselves:

  • The questions we get most frequently about our project are definitional ones: “what’s a comic con?” and “what are the limits of events you’re including?” Can the network of guests tell us something about the kinds of events and the limits of “comiccon-ness”?
  • If pre-existing categories like “pop culture con,” “comic arts festival,” “SF con,” and “zine fest” are apparent in the network, which events and guests bridge these boundaries?
  • How discernible will event organizations be as, for example, many of the same guests appear at Informa, ReedPOP, and Wizard World events, respectively?
  • While there’s a class of big-name guests that move around the field, there are presumably many more guests who focus on local or regional events that are easier and/or more affordable for them to appear at. Will this effect be sufficient for geography to be apparent in the network?