The Fan in the Mirror: Fandom Documentaries
by James Palmer
(Addendum: This was originally intended to be the subject for my first Barium Cinema column in the debut issue of Continuum SF, but I didn't find out until after I'd written it that the editor doesn't want to cover anything comics or fandom-related. So after sitting on it for over a year, it finally dawned on me that I should put it on this site anyway, so interested parties could have a look. Enjoy.)
The first time I read Damon Knightís The Futurians, the authorís memoir of his fandom days, my first thought was how well it would have worked as a documentary film. Early fans wrote books on fandom history and society, but now, writers and fans are going behind the camera to tell their stories to the world, to share a piece of their obsessions with the masses, and discover for themselves and the outside world why they like the stuff they do. Letís take a look at two such efforts and how well they portray the odd world of science fiction and comic fandom.
Comic Book: The Movie directed by Mark Hamill.
There have been fictional portraits of fans before, from Mark Altmanís abysmal Free Enterprise to the smart, witty and fun Galaxy Quest . But Mark Hamill takes a different approach with his tale. Comic Book: the Movie is a "mockumentary" in the style of This is Spinal Tap, but with slightly lower production values. In this film, Hamill plays nerdy high school history teacher and comic book fan Donald Swan, who gets called to Hollywood as a technical consultant on a big budget adaptation of the comic book Codename: Courage. Never heard of it? Thatís OK, because they made it up. The only problem is, this new comic is based on a Golden Age book called Commander Courage (again, this is made up just for the movie). Don has a problem with this militaristic version of the hero he loves being turned into a movie, and plans to undermine the production and turn the money men around to his way of thinking when they go to San Diegoís ComicCon to promote the film. Itís basically every comic book fanís revenge fantasy told in documentary format.
While fiction, Comic Book: the Movie actually manages to depict what it means to be a fan in a flattering light. Thereís lots of fannish in-jokes, such as when Donís friend Derek, played by Tom Kenny (Spongebob Squarepants), drags his wife and child to San Diego for their wedding anniversary. A bit later he gives his son a Shazam! action figure set, which his son refuses to open because itís collectible. Derekís wife then complainingly tells the tale of how their son wouldnít open any of his Christmas presents for the same reason. But what really sells the film is Mark Hamill, who shows that he is truly one of us in his portrayal of Don Swan. Hamill is a huge comic book fan (he attended his first ComicCon before trying out for the part of Luke Skywalker), and he brings his expertise to bear when running around the convention as Donald Swan.
Actually, the documentary format kind of falls flat when you realize that thereís only one cameraman, according to the story, and heís part of the action (voice actor Jess Harnell, Animaniacs). So you really do feel like youíre watching a movie about a guy making a movie, which the complexity of the storyline demands. But it isnít the same as sitting and watching an actual documentary, or even a fake one like Spinal Tap. The closest they come to actual comic book documentary is when they spy a young huckster in the dealerís room at the convention with the marketing savvy of P.T. Barnum. "Come git yerself 32 pages of salvayshun!" He blares to the crowded hall. Heís Devin T. Quin, and heís hawking a self-published comic called Robots ĎR Cool, Zombies ĎR Jerks, a tale about robots fighting zombies in outer space that includes a transcendental muffin and a banjo-playing frog. The scene was shortened for the finished film, but they wisely put the whole segment in the set of deleted scenes. Iím sure the scene began as a lark, but it really delves deep into the plight of the independent artist crying out to be heard, and Quin is so entertaining I could have watched him talk about his comic for an hour.
But Don has a film to undermine, and what follows are his attempts to do so, some of which are kind of funny. For example, Donís hired an actor (voice actor Daran Norris) to wear a Golden Age Commander Courage costume and stand beside the studioís booth at the con, which irritates the studio executives to no end, as they are pushing the modern version. He also interviews Bruce Campbell, who is up for the lead in the movie, and turns him around to the original Commander Courage by pointing out that the original Commanderís mask wonít cover up his whole face like that of the new version.
Don also brings along the grandson of Commander Courageís creator, Leo Matuzik (Billy West, Ren and Stimpy, Futurama), a sheet metal worker who is clueless about comics. However, he warms to the industry when he finds out he is entitled to residuals, and at the end of the film is actively promoting the revamped version. Voice actors Roger Rose and Lori Alan star as the increasingly harried studio execs who have to deal with Donís antics. And Harnell provides constant--and at times, annoying--comic relief as the stoner cameraman Ricky.
At the end of the day, though, this is still just a mockumentary. Itís cute, but not as interesting to the fan who is looking for the real convention experiences. For these, he must go to the second DVD, which contains, among other goodies, a behind the voices panel filmed at ComicCon starring Hamillís voice actor co-stars. And Hamillís message, that studios should listen to their audience, that fans shouldnít empty their wallets to see a film just because it features their favorite comic character, is an important one, though I think it rings a bit hollow now that there are actually a few comic book movies that have been done right, i.e., Spider-Man and X-Men. Now, if we can just get SF fans to stop camping out for months to see the latest Star Wars abortion and watching a TV show just because it has Star Trek somewhere in the title, weíll be a lot better off.
But one true documentary does a much better job at getting to the heart of fandom.
Fans and Freaks: the Culture of Comics and Conventions, is an independent that has been making the film festival rounds for a couple of years now, to rave reviews. Produced by husband and wife film makers Stephen and Suzie Lackey, Fans and Freaks is an answer for those of us who thought Trekkies made Star Trek fans look like a bunch of delusional wackos. Focusing on media fandom in the Southeast United States, the film opens with Tennessee comic store owner Chris Dyer as he talks about his love of comics and his experiences with some of the stranger denizens of fandom who enter his store. Then it rapidly moves into the fan clubs that meet there, then into conventions. We meet young Anime fan Ambera McGee and see her collection of Japanese Anime and Manga, then travel to Anime Weekend Atlanta, were we see a bizarre ritual known as Anime karaoke. The film makers also visited the Mephit Furmeet, a Memphis gathering of those red-headed stepchildren of the science fiction genre, the furries. Finally they take us to what is arguably the biggest freak show in the Southeast, and one of my personal favorites, Dragon*Con, where we meet a young girl in Princess Amidala regalia who can play the Star Wars theme on the fiddle, watch members of the band Gwar wrestle, and see another band member sit atop a Tesla coil and shoot electricity from her fingertips.
Where Trekkies had a sort of "look at the freaks" aspect to it, showing only the most bizarre of Star Trekís many aficionados, Fans and Freaks is a more evenhanded attempt to depict the strange, grotesque free-for-all that is organized fandom, the good and the bad. Fans talk about what they like most about the particular genre they are interested in, as well as some of the bad things, such as when a group of female anime fans complain about being hit on by overweight guys in black t-shirts who donít bathe (an occurrence so common it has become the stereotype for fandom). The fans really get a chance to be themselves and talk about how their interests affect their lives and their families, and all of them seem to have a much healthier grip on reality than the fans portrayed in Trekkies. My only gripeĖand this is coming from a literary SF fan--is that it doesnít show any fans or conventions of written SF that isnít based on a TV show. Would it have killed them to show a bit of a writing panel from Dragon*Con? This is all OK though. The Lackeys filmed what they were interested in, and unlike a short segment filmed at a con by a local news crewĖwhere they only film the people in costume--it shows.
While by no means definitive (again, no book fans), Fans and Freaks does include all the major cross sections of modern, media fandom. If anyone outside the genre is curious about what any of this crazy stuff is about, they should see this movie. It may attract you to one or more of these obsessions, it may repulse you, it may terrify you to the very core of your being, but it will satisfy your curiosity. Especially if everything you know about furries you learned from that episode of CSI. Fans and Freaks does a pretty good job at portraying fandom in a positive light, as well as explaining why fans gather at conventions in the first place.
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