A THEORY ON THE THREE TYPES OF FANDOM
by Gene Phillips
I've observed over time that though there are two fannish subcultures, usually called "mainstream" and "alternative," there are actually three types of fan, the last being a blend of the first two, to wit:
1) The Gotta-Know-It-All
2) The Smartass
3) The nameless hybrid of the two, sometimes referred to as "spawn of Yog-Sothoth."
The Gotta-Know-It-All is essentially the reader who forms so strong a cathexis for a given reading-experience (be it a medium or a genre within the medium) that he wants to pursue every possible permutation of it. This theory can be expanded to cover just about any activity that generates a fandom, though for convenience I'll center on experiences that can be "read" rather than heard (music) or watched (sports games). This reader is usually focused on what is called the "mainstream." In current comic books this mainstream is largely dominated by the superhero genre, but even though in other media no particular genre dominates so strongly, one still finds the avid fan pursuing particular genres to the exclusion of others, be they westerns, romances, or "tea-cosy" mysteries.
The Smartass is the reader who looks (or claims that he has looked) beyond the narrative boundaries of the mainstream genre or genres the GKIA likes, and then devotes his energies principally denigrating that mainstream. He may or may not be allied to the "alternative" scene, but in comics most fans of the alternative scene pass through this phase. Thus while the GKIA is defined by the desire to stay within the confines of a given reading-experience, the Smartass is oriented on encouraging (and sometimes browbeating) others to transgress the boundaries of their reading-worlds, boundaries that are purportedly stultifying and anti-creative. From this brief sketch I postulate that the GKIA's attitude toward his chosen activity is primarily (but not exclusively) emotional, while the Smartass' attitude is born of an intellectual desire to transcend what is familiar and predictable (however emotional he may be in his fervor to convert others).
Ideally, the hybrid might be "the best of both worlds," comprising a way of thinking capable of appreciating the reading-experiences of both mainstream and alternative. In the comics-world, however, it may be that even hybrids are not much more tolerant of one another's beliefs than the Smartasses are of GKIAs, or vice versa. Be that as it may, one strategy by which one might attain a latitudinarian attitude toward the "two subcultures" might be found in the philosophy of Ernst Cassirer.
In the passage below, from Cassirer's PHENOMENOLOGY OF KNOWLEDGE (tr. Ralph Manheim, 1957), Cassirer is not speaking of any kind of literary experience at all, but rather of the birth of the philosophical movement in early Greece, and the revolt that early philosophers found necessary to carry out against "myth and language," which in Cassirer's reckoning are pre-philosophical modes by which human beings attempt to understand the world.
"...the concept of philosophy attains its full power and purity only where the world view expressed in linguistic and mythical concepts is abandoned... The logic of philosophy first constitutes itself by this very act of transcendence... Only in this way can [philosophy] define and assert its essence and truth. Even where, as in Plato, philosophy continues to use myth as a form of expression... it must stand outside and above this form... Myth remains attached to the world of change and hence of illusion... Philosophical knowledge must first free itself from the constraint of language and myth; it must, as it were, thrust out these witnesses of human inadequacy, before it can rise to the pure ether of thought."
Again, it bears repeating that nowhere in this passage is Cassirer speaking of any kind of literature, be it "mainstream" or "alternative." However, his account of how philosophers come to reject earlier modes of understanding, because they are seen as promising only meaningless illusions, seems to me a strong parallel to the entire "mainstream vs. alternative" controversy in many media, which is perhaps heightened within the comic-book world, if only by virtue of that world's small compass.
Throughout PHENOMENOLOGY OF KNOWLEDGE Cassirer praises the breakthroughs of the great early philosophers, but cautions against taking at face value their attempts to become free from "the constraint of language and myth." For "language and myth" I would loosely substitute "mainstream genre," albeit with the understanding that not all genres are innately mainstream in all media at all times. For instance, in the 1940s the superhero genre was something of a bastard curiosity in the world of cinema, and the western genre was functionally mainstream. Today, the two genres have essentially switched places in terms of how many of each are produced for theatrical release.
To a degree I can respect the Smartass desire to see a given medium transcend narrative boundaries and to encourage other readers to be more venturesome in their tastes. However, this snob-evangelism usually leads them to willfully distort and misrepresent the nature of the genre(s) against which they fulminate, and so contribute nothing that would advance a holistic understanding of both mainstream and alternative creativity.