Otaku Crying “Heretic!” by Duane Sharrock
A huge controversy is underway, and it is nearing a full out Internet flame war, because a black girl has been cast to play Mary Jane Watson. This is a major event that some believe is powered by racism. For some of the obvious, explicitly racial comments against this casting, this is be the case, but I suggest though that for many others, it’s not really racism at all.
In the late eighties and nineties, there was no angered outcry when mutants Storm and Forge got together. In the X-men books there have been many romantic interracial relationships. In the Fantastic Four, a blind woman fell in love with Ben Grimm, also known as The Thing, a big super strong, ni-invulnerable rock man. Marvel even broke ground where the Scarlet Witch, a superpowered human, and The Vision, an android, had a relationship in the Avengers. Their stories can be found in many Marvel story-lines, X Men titles, The Avengers, and in many DC titles after the Crisis of Infinite Earths event. Comic book readers are extremely progressive when it comes to romance, and you can find cited evidence here.
This is why, when I read that people are being called racists for angrily rejecting Zendaya as Mary Jane, I feel the need to defend them, even though I disagree with the opinion that Mary Jane can’t be black. She can be black or a latina or any other combination. I will keep my race card in hand though because this rage at Hollywood and the-powers-that-be might be a fanboy thing. I know that some of the angry fanboys are not driven by racism; instead, some are driven by the obsession to maintain canon: “Canon, in regards to comic books, is what is considered to be “real,” “what really happened” or “what that character is really like” as opposed to events, etc., that happened in comic books, but nobody “counts it” as being “real” or “actually happened.”
Now, although I’m a sporadic comic book reader, lapsed from my fanatic devotion to some of the various continuities, I do have my loyalties (TMI). I know where I come from. Because of comic books, I know catch phrases and idiomatic expressions of about 7 or 8 different languages, I learned geography, and a lot of scientific terms (TMI!). And because of the Marvel Universe, I learned that There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch (TANSTAAFL) before I went to college (TMI). My sense of social responsibility can be explained in one quote: “With great power comes great responsibility.” I’ve accepted other facts of life as well. One is that the hero’s life is necessarily lonely due to the double-life each usually leads. And with every victory, there is loss. When DC “saw the Light” of TANSTAAFL and initiated the Crisis of Infinite Earths, I welcomed them. Both DC and Marvel live on in my heart.
This is who I am: a comic book fan. In comic industry lingo, you might call me a “fanboy.” This illustrious title, this magnificent moniker, invites images of middle-aged men living in their parent’s basement playing with action figures. We fanboys get a bad rap and are often ridiculed on The Simpson’s and by every television scriptwriter who knows we exist, because “nerd” doesn’t cut it. “Fanboy” kind of says it all. And “fan” is short for fanatic.
Canon puts the “real” in fantasy.
Readers of the old Marvel comics would be familiar with the readers letters to the publisher. Readers would write in with questions and peeves about certain events and minute details. And as you read the comic book story, there would be footnotes where an editor or writer would refer back to a previous issue in order to “support” the event.
I admit it. I can understand how crazy this might seem. These characters aren’t real! None of the events they are in actually happen. So, why is this such a big deal?
The answer gets weird. It is because reality is a concept that emerges from a combination of cognitive processes as well as from our affect thinking processes. Some psychologists refer to this capacity as Theory of Mind (ToM).
ToM describes the dynamic product of a mental mechanism that models our perception of how other people think and feel. It’s our internal simulator for the individuals we believe we know, about their opinions and intentions, about their emotions and character. We use the ToM to predict behaviors and actions, in addition to what they are probably thinking and feeling. We use our ToM for past behavior, present behavior, and future behavior. We are all talking about ToM even though we often don’t realize it. Every time we explore emotional intelligence, we are talking about ToM, but we have narrowed the exploration to the affective domain of our Theory of Mind.
People with autism are said to lack this ability. Psychologists are studying these perceptions. In exploring the human capacity of empathy, psychologists have uncovered two phenomena: perspective-taking and experience-taking. In “The Psychology of Fandom: Why We Get Attached to Fictional Characters,” the author Abby Norman writes:
“Experience-taking” is different from putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, which is more “perspective-taking” —like when we were discussing empathy earlier. The act of taking on experience, traits or attributes is very powerful; since it happens on an unconscious level, over time positive change can develop for the individual: increased confidence, motivation and a greater level of comfort socially, for one.”
Miracles Never Cease
Canon is not just a comic book or scifi/fantasy movie thing. It’s also a fiction thing: “In fiction, canon is the material accepted as officially part of the story in an individual universe of that story. It is often contrasted with, or used as the basis for, works of fan fiction. The alternative terms mythology, timeline, and continuity are often used, with the former being especially to refer to a richly detailed fictional canon requiring a large degree of suspension of disbelief (e.g. an entire imaginary world and history), while the latter two typically refer to a single arc where all events are directly connected chronologically.”
Then, reading more of the entry, I went down the rabbit hole: “The term was first used by analogy in the context of fiction to refer to the Sherlock Holmes stories and novels, written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Ronald Knox used the term in a 1911 essay “Studies in the Literature of Sherlock Holmes” to distinguish Doyle’s works from subsequent pastiches by other authors. It has subsequently been applied to many media franchises. Among these are science fiction and fantasy franchises such as Star Trek, Star Wars, Harry Potter, Halo, Fallout, The Elder Scrolls, Mass Effect, BioShock, Doctor Who, Middle-earth, A Song of Ice and Fire, the Narnia series, the The Dark Tower books, and Dinotopia, in which many stories have been told in different media, some of which may contradict or appear to contradict each other.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Canon_(fiction) So, it appears that “fanfiction” was an issue in the 1900s. There’s a history of fanfiction.
This is to be expected though. In the oral tradition, storytellers told legends, folk tales, fairy tales, and tall tales featuring specific main characters. People like Baba Yaga, Ananzi, Crow, Coyote, Finn McCool, and others made appearances and starred in tales the way Abbot and Costello appeared comedic depictions of Hollywood horror movies. Fanfiction predates literature and written language. But even with Christianity, angels and other Biblical beings have taken the place of fairy godmothers and the wandering strangers who test for kindness, mercy, and other virtues. For example, the Bible and the Apocrypha “A biblical canon or canon of scripture is a list of texts (or “books”) which a particular religious community regards as authoritative scripture. The word “canon” comes from the Greek κανών, meaning “rule” or “measuring stick“. Christians became the first to use the term in reference to scripture, but Eugene Ulrich regards the idea as Jewish.”
Yet, when you think of it, the Bible had it’s own challenges. And sure enough, the scripture connection: “The use of the word “canon” in reference to a set of texts derives from Biblical canon, the set of books regarded as scripture, as contrasted with non-canonical Apocrypha.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Canon_(fiction). This leads to the Church and the original fanboys, except violations of canon were called heresy.
Heresy is not simple though. There was an Edict of Thessalonica in 380 AD made by the Roman Catholics. It was about heresy. Then, about 1000 years later, Thomas Aquinas defined heresy as “a species of infidelity in men who, having professed the faith of Christ, corrupt its dogmas.”
However, “heresy can only be committed by someone who considers himself a Christian, but rejects the teachings of the Catholic Church. A person who completely renounces Christianity is not considered a heretic, but an apostate, and a person who renounces the authority of the Church but not its teachings is a schismatic.”
There is also a distinction between formal and material heresy.
The Catholic Church enacted these laws because they understood the dangers of fan fiction. “Fan fiction is almost never regarded as canonical. However, certain ideas may become influential or widely accepted within fan communities, who refer to such ideas as “fanon”, aportmanteau of fan and canon.”
So, people can be formal or material heretics, apostates, and schismatics.
This is huge and it the main reason that there is an unwritten covenant between comic readers and writers. If you take on a character like Spiderman, for example, you better know his motifs as well as the metaphysical tropes–metaphysics, not in terms of religion, but the mechanisms of how the universe works. For example, although most people will die horrifically when exposed to high doses of radiation or electricity, death doesn’t happen to the fabulous few endowed with a certain mutant factor. Rather, instead of dying, they gain powers and incredible talents. They also have to know that limits are necessary. Scriptwriters appear to go through great pains in comic books to establish certain changes within a franchise’s universe. They might also be seen making a pseudo-legal argument. That’s because interfering with canon threatens the integrity of the fantasy. For the same reasons that religious organizations might fight against “misreadings” (interpretations) that threatened their own beliefs and practices, fanboys–mainly fanboys–would take time out of their day to quibble over troubling events or decisions that threatened to invalidate certain story-lines.
It’s not just a fanboy thing. It’s a neurotypical thing.
Canon of the Despicable Me universe
To answer the question the reader must be asking by now, I should point out that it wasn’t the Mary Jane Watson casting controversy that started me down this road. It was my daughter.
We were watching the Minions movie, the third movie in the Despicable Me series. Minions is presented as a prequel. This struck me at two levels. One level was the idea that the writers felt compelled to create a history for the minions who served Gru. On the other level though I was struck by how movie sequels are very much like the comic books I used to read.
My daughter is frustrated with the Minions origin depicted in the movie. She says it isn’t what they said in the first Despicable Me. She was practically angry. My wife agreed. “The minions were created in the lab. Gru made them.”
To be clear, this is my belief as well. But not only did I agree with this belief, I also agreed with the implied sentiment. What was “Hollywood” doing? Why would “they” take such a risk messing with the minion origin? Don’t “they” know the world is watching?!!!
So, I went online. I’m not saying that I combed every message board and wiki devoted to the Despicable Me Universe (and yes, when your movie has a sequel and a prequel, there is a universe), but I am saying that I could not find evidence to support the belief that the minions were originally said to be Gru’s lab creations. So, –obsessive that I am–I went to the library and borrowed the first Despicable Me. But even with my own eyes, I could not find evidence that contradicted the prequel movie’s suggestion–okay, assertion–that the minions had evolved.
In the process though, I did learn a few things. One–my obsessive response harkened back to my old fanboy days. Two–I also realized that fanboys could also be girls. My daughter is a fangirl, which is, to clarify, the female version of a fanboy. This introduced the possibility that the obsessiveness of the fanboy and fangirl is not so abnormal as I had previously believed.
What if fandomness–fanaticism–is natural?
It Ain’t Necessarily So
Zendaya is cast as Mary Jane Watson
People love stories. To make it sound sophisticated and professional, we call stories narratives. This is to distance ourselves from being called fanboys and nerds or anything else we call “outsiders.” Once that was established, people with masters degrees in business administration got onboard. In fact, branding is all about narrative. Apparently, many of us neurotypicals are “wired” for narratives. It’s one the big ways we learn. It is also essential for culture building in organizations, tribes, teams. Psychologists explore this facet of the engagement responses to narrative, and call these responses “perspective-taking” and “experience-taking”.
But, just as in psychology’s earliest manifestations with William James, we cannot avoid the study of religious experiences. As a result, we can also find religious parallels to story-line fanaticism.
The Zendaya-As-Mary-Jane-Watson Controversy is based on an inflexible and limited awareness of how comic books work. Writers and artists change jobs. They take on titles, do what they can to push certain limits and understandings, then they move on…for various reasons. Spiderman for example is a teenager in high school. He’s not supposed to be bulky like a power-lifter. He’s supposed to be skinny, albeit with apparent cuts and definition. Various artists and writers though have allowed him to mature into adulthood, get married, despite the weight of his angst and guilt from allowing his gentle uncle Ben get killed by a common thief. His origin story has been tweaked in many different ways, in part, because of the success of the movie versions but also because of the Flynn Effect and the resulting increased sophistication of the comic book readers.
Writers focus on certain aspects of the Spiderman mythos. Some writers play up the genius of Peter Parker and his scientific curiosity, for example, so that, not only does he use his genius to figure out how to beat the newest “unstoppable” bad guy, but also, because he is a genius who has unusual talent in materials sciences, the talent behind his somewhat spontaneous invention of spiderweb fluid and web slinging device. The “mantle” of the spider man has been passed on to teenage girls and to a blacktino teenage boy who was apparently “chosen” by one enhanced spider. Different writers focus on different facets, but they also have to deal with the realities of the community Spiderman/Peter Parker lives in. There is a science aspect and a social aspect to consider.
The Secret is harder to keep these days, and writers have to deal with this reality. Face recognition technology can see faces under the sock-mask requiring countermeasures, and because of cell phones and social networks, people capture a lot more, notice a lot more. Classmates, and other significant others, are not mindless so should notice when Peter disappears just before a certain web-head appears since this happens far too often. In the old days, readers knew that when someone came to the realization that Peter Parker is Spiderman, that person was was going to die soon or that some kind of accident was going to wipe the memory of that knowledge.
The same happens with Mary Jane Watson. She goes from a buxom, somewhat confused redhead, to a new incarnation, standing on equal footing with Peter Parker in terms of genius level intellect in high school, still a redhead but a lot less endowed and carries a lot more common sense all because of shifts in editors, artists, and writers. So, there is precedent that physical differences do happen to main as well as to supporting characters during continuity reboots.
The thing is, some of the Keepers of Canon will always have a problem with specific changes, but the changes do happen just the same. And it’s a tough “pill” to swallow. Like the US Constitution, the canon of our favorite fictional characters are “living documents.” And just like the Bible and the countless judicial interpretations of legal cases, comic book stories have room for differences of depiction and understanding. Our forefathers of the United States saw the importance of establishing our three branches and The Supreme Court, and religious leaders have endowed chosen leaders with the authority of having the “last word” on interpretations of religious text.
Which says a lot about the fanboy in all of these incarnations. Not only is this obsessiveness with canon somewhat natural, it is also annoying, and society at-large constantly endeavors to reign them in.
Comic book letter column – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Comic_book_letter_column
Seth Godin: In “How to get your ideas to spread https://youtu.be/xBIVlM435Zg” via @YouTube, Godin mentions otaku.
Canon for the Star Wars
The Psychology of Fandom: Why We Get Attached to Fictional Characters http://www.themarysue.com/the-psychology-of-fandom/ via @TheMarySue
Note: “By the 1970s, nearly all mainstream comics included letter pages. Historian Matthew J. Pustz describes the different approaches of the two major publishers:
“There were, however, important differences between the lettercols published by DC and Marvel. In many DC comics, letters were shortened, excerpted, or compiled into lists of suggested guest stars. Marvel letters pages, conversely, often contained very long letters in which fans praised, criticized, or offered detailed suggestions. Unlike DC editors, who referred to readers as ‘them,’ the editors of Marvel’s letters pages frequently directly addressed their fans, often using the inclusive ‘we’ or ‘us.’ . . . Negative letters were common, but the criticism often differed. While Marvel fans’ criticism could be very pointed, focusing on the work of particular writers and artists or even the company’s whole output, negative letters from DC fans were usually mild. . . . By the early 1980s, though, DC letter columns began to become more like Marvel’s, with longer letters that privileged content and commentary over simple reaction. By the late 1980s and early 1990s, Marvel letter pages had lost much of their critical edge, with DC lettercols taking up the slack.” from “Comic book letter column” – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Comic_book_letter_column