Superman is sad and it’s not because the Flash is faster. Last month, an official blog of DC Comics, The Source, shut down its comments section, spurned by fans’ reaction to a preview of Superman #709. The community’s response was the same as always: what can you expect from a bunch of rabid fanboys on the Internet? The idea that we, as members of the larger geek culture, could be decent and gracious seemed out of the question. Even though community celebrities, like Neil Gaiman, have felt the need to weigh in on the rampant repulsiveness of obsessive fandom, there’s no sign that change is coming from within. In an age when no one person could ever experience all that mass media has to offer us, we still get so invested in specific things that we’re willing to turn on those that create what we love.
I don’t need to go into much detail to define the problem: our culture has entitlement issues. Certain fans, usually a vocal minority, believe that they deserve to dictate what sort of work creators and publishers provide for them. You know the ones. Those who leave comments containing complaints about release date delays, personal attacks aimed at particular people, and detailed rants about trivial dreck. To geeks, it’s normal to get so invested in the things that we love, but a false sense of entitlement can turn a fanboy into a problem. Such behavior spreads toxic thinking that can only harm our culture, whether it’s something as simple as a mean tweet or as convoluted as pirating your weekly pulls in order to keep up with community discussion. When we think we have a right to our media, it unnecessarily shows the ugly side of being a geek.
While we may dismiss nasty fans with entitlement issues as asinine trolls empowered by their anonymity, we ignore another critical part of the problem. To some degree, our culture is built upon the existence of parasocial relationships. As we become more and more engaged in media, we tend to develop friendships with fictional characters in lieu of social interaction with other humans. This sociological phenomenon is relatively new, first being noticed in the mid-twentieth century, but we geeks all have some experience with it. In the case of Superman, we often get to hear his inner thoughts, his hopes and fears, in addition to being one of the privileged few that know about Kal’s secret identity. It’s hard to deny an attachment to the guy when you know more about him than Batman, but that’s the problem with parasocial relationships — you’ll never be able to use that information to put Supes in his place with a Kryptonite ring. Your interaction with those characters will always be one-sided, as you will rarely, if ever, influence the stories you read. You may identify with any number of superheroes, but they’ll never understand what it’s like to be you. (Well, except maybe Uatu.)
That’s not to say that there’s anything inherently wrong with parasocial relationships either. It’s a change that society has been dealing with since the advent of mass media. On a personal note, I don’t know what sort of person I’d be if it wasn’t for such interactions in my life. As someone who has trouble with depression and anxiety, I’ve self-medicated with escapism ever since I learned to read. The knowledge that there’s always someone you can interact with, even if they are fictional, can help us cope with the stress in our lives. If you’re searching for strength, why not look to an omnipresent friend like Superman? Our emotional bonds to those beloved characters can be a positive thing. However, much like social interaction with real people, things may not always go as planned.
When something poisons your parasocial relationship, your media can become your enemy. If you’re a geek that’s grown up reading about Superman, it’s safe to say that you’ve got some emotional ties to the Man of Steel. You’re not going to enjoy it when a writer comes along and throws a character like Doomsday into the mix. We may become upset, even resentful, when faced with a loss, but the emotional distress caused by such an event isn’t preventable. Just as we deal with realities of life, most of us will be able to appreciate the need for change and move on with our lives. However, those same events can leave some geeks looking for someone to blame. It’s a search that will only lead them to the creators of the media they once loved, fostering a false sense of entitlement in disgruntled fans who wish to influence their fictional friends.
When you see a nasty comment on a blog, look no further for proof that parasocial relationships establish a love for the characters and not their creators. I can’t say I know much about Robert Kirkman, but I can tell you for sure that he is directly responsible for the deaths of some of my friends. While I could be bitter towards him for that, I choose instead to honor him for giving me the chance to interact with any of his characters. An obsessive geek having trouble coping with changes in their favorite media may not be so forgiving. In our digital culture, all it takes to lash out at another is a few words in a public forum. People get upset, things get ugly, and comments get killed. No one is any closer to closure and in the end, rabid fans, out of love for their favorite characters, turn on creators.
So, once again, I turn to you, my fellow geeks, to see a change in our community. The idea that we are in some way entitled to control the media we consume is influencing how we treat each other. Parasocial relationships can be a positive thing, but only if we can embrace change and respect creators. Our connections to these characters are born out of love, something authors and artists aren’t always able to see amidst all of the hate they encounter. If we wish to honor our interaction with the fictional realm, we should start with being decent to those that help us escape there. Whether or not you think the Flash is faster than Superman, I hope that’s something we can all agree on.