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.

TV Guide cover featuring illustration of Nathan Fillion and Stana Katic

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.