Thursday, June 5, 2014

Again The Same River - on Fandom, Art and Neurodiversity with an old Webcomic Friend

I recently stumbled across a list of seventeen completed webcomics to binge-read from beginning to end. (A webcomic, for those unfamiliar to the term, is exactly what it sounds like: a comic book delivered digitally via the internet. The art form has an interesting history, including some writers who have taken full advantage of the unlimited digital canvass to experiment with form. See my earlier post on Order of the Stick for more on webcomics). At the very end of the list, I was quite surprised to see an old friend I'd neither read nor really thought about in well over a decade now: T Campbell's Fans (previously titled Faans). It started off as a black-and-white geek-culture celebrating print comic about a science fiction fan club getting mixed up in real-world SF adventures including battles with invading space aliens, vampires, "men-in-black" style  secret government agents, and others. It started off as great silly fun, picking up depth and complexity. While some geek-culture comics seem to have vanished (ie, the comic-book loving Three Geeks) and others have remained frozen in amber, repeating the same jokes over and over for years (I'm thinking specifically of Jolly Blackburn's Knights of the Dinner Table), Fans seems to have run through a complete story with some surprises, real character development, and a beginning, middle, and end.  Reading all those years of strips I'd missed was an interesting experience, and one which opens some interesting questions.

Fans are Slans
The above phrase, referencing A E van Vogt's 1946 novel Slan, was at one time a rallying cry for science fiction fans. The implication is clear to those who'd read the novel: fans are looked down upon despite being smarter,  more interconnected, and just better than regular "mundanes" (the fannish word for a non-fan). They saw themselves as the future of which everyone else is afraid. The early adventures of Campbell's characters reflect this attitude: the only ones prepared to protect the world against fantastic threats are those who've lived the fantastic in their imagination.

This attitude seems to have faded as science fiction and fantasy have become more mainstream and, to his credit, it's one with which Campbell seems to have become increasingly uncomfortable in his writing. As the comic wandered further from fan culture it thankfully dropped this attitude. We still end up with a quirky group of characters repeatedly saving the world from increasingly strange and high-stakes threats, but the emphasis on fandom fades significantly. This is a nice thing, and makes the series feel both more universal and less geek-snobbish. The final chapters involve a "next generation" in which most of the original fans have backed away from the saving-the-world business to settle in for some form of happy ending. 

And about those happy endings, there IS a touch of sentimentality at points, and I found the resolution of one love-triangle to be a bit wish-fulfillment-ish. Your mileage may vary, but it leads to another interesting positive. 

On Neurodiversity and Non-standard families
We end up with some  non-standard family arrangements (including a three-person marriage), and quite a few characters who would certainly be identified as either on the autism spectrum or otherwise mentally not normal. There is a bit of the autism-as-superpower trope with one character, but there are also cases in which different thought patterns - particularly cretaive, visual thinking - are more valuable than traditional analytical thinking. This makes a bit of the case for the neurodiversity movement - those who view what many of us see as mental impairments (particularly the autism spectrum) as differences to be celebrated rather than disabilities to be overcome. I have no idea as to whether or not this is intentional, but one art has an existence apart from the creator and one way to judge great art is by asking if it can be viewed more than one way, with more than one message. This is one of the messages I see in Fans. It's also a thought which I find interesting in the real world; while some people with autism or other conditions are truly unable to function in society, there's still plenty of room between what we consider "normal" and unable to function in society. It's something worth thinking about.

Various characters also end up happily single, in a three-way marriage and, perhaps most surpisingly in a traditional nuclear family. The people we care about all get happy endings, but they're all different happy endings - and not the ones a reader would envision on first meeting the characters. Most ring true though, as character grow to be something more. In a way it reminds me a bit of the aforementioned Order of the Stick in that we  start with archetypes who eventually grow into people. 

Worth Reading?
They say you can't cross the same river twice, as the river has changed and so have you. This is true, and the experience wasn't the same.Reading a completed webcomic is not the same as reading one as it's published; the anticipation between pages is a part of the experience which is hard to duplicate. On the positive side, there's none of the frustration in having to wait for the rest of the story; one can read at ones own pace.   Was this worth the time to read? I thought so, and not soley for the nostalgia value. Fans features exploration of different art styles, some real surprises, and a great deal of fun. Highly recommended for those into the webcomic form or playful sci-fi. 

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