Some Extended Thoughts on Fandom and Canon, a Blog Series; Post #4: Head Canon

Earlier this summer, I contributed to Adam Sternbergh’s research for an article on fandom and canon that was published in the July 27 issue of New York Magazine (see here for the article). As I have in the previous posts in this series, I’m sharing some of my perspectives that didn’t make it into the final published version. The focus for this final post is the phenomenon of fan production known as “head canon.”

According to the Oxford English Dictionary (the gold standard for academics, so I’ve been told), the first definition of canon is, “A rule, law, or decree of the Church; esp. a rule laid down by an ecclesiastical Council. the canon (collectively)” and reaches back to around the year 890. And in popular culture, there are few words that carry as much reverence and debate  as “canon.” When it comes to “head canon,” a key element of this fan activity is that it doesn’t change the established narrative of the “official” canon, unlike AU (alternate universe) fan fiction. It fills in the gaps, but doesn’t contradict the established storyline.

All stories have gaps. That’s the nature of narrative and this nature is counter-intuitively enhanced in long-running series. Fans want to know what is happening off-screen, between installments, before the series started, and, of course, after the stories “end.” This impulse fuels fan fiction and fan art but also the less-developed head canon. This is, as its name implies, primarily a private/personal mini story created by a fan for his or her favorite series, usually focusing on beloved characters. Social media, however, provides platforms for the sharing of these “personal” canons among fans. One of the most popular platforms for this is Tumblr, where just a quick search of the #headcanon tag can fill hours and hours of fun. It is one of those digital arenas that should come with a warning label for how much time it can absorb.

One of my favorite fandoms for active head canon focuses on Harry Potter. When I’ve looked at these before from a scholarly perspective, I found that fan interest in head canon tends to fall into three general areas for this series:

  1. Before the events of Philosopher’s Stone (split between the Founders of Hogwarts and the Marauders, Harry’s parents and their friends).
  2. During the seven books, minus the Epilogue of Deathly Hallows, particularly the summers Harry spends with the Weasleys at the Burrow.
  3. Between the end of Deathly Hallows and its Epilogue.

Another example of head canon I particularly like was shared by a fellow panelist on the Marvel Cinematic Universe session at the 2015 Arisia Convention (a Boston-area science fiction convention): the children and grandchildren of the Howling Commandos (from Captain America: The First Avenger) see themselves as family who get together frequently and can be called upon to support each other at a moment’s notice. This provides a nice gap-filler in the storyline from the mid-season finale of Agents of SHIELD‘s second season where one such descendant, who is part of the team, is killed. From my perspective, it allowed me to see that agent’s mother having an extensive support system to help her through her grief (which we glimpse briefly at the end of one episode) and also to imagine an entire network of skilled operatives looking to avenge their lost “cousin.”

Of course, head canon also comes with a downside in terms of memory when fans become so attached to one that they might lose sight of the “head” or non-official nature of it. I’ve fallen into this trap myself but haven’t let it stop me from delving into this particular form of fan production. It’s just too much fun.

Some Extended Thoughts on Fandom and Canon, a Blog Series; Post #3: Canon’s Dark Side

Earlier this summer, I contributed to Adam Sternbergh’s research for a New York Magazine article on fandom and canon that was published in the July 27 issue (see here for the article). As I wrote in the previous two posts, I am sharing some of my perspectives that didn’t make it into the final published version via a series of weekly blog posts. Today’s focus is the dark side of canon used as an exclusionary tactic and gatekeeping mechanism to separate out “real” fans from the rest of us.

One thing that became clear for me while doing the research for The Science Fiction Reboot is that fans do not always wield the power of canon with an accompanying level of responsibility (or even common decency in some cases). Canon has been employed in much less joyful ways, particularly with long-running stories such as those in the comics universes and Star Trek. All one has to do is Google “Star Trek in Name Only” or “fake geek girls” to see this dark side in action (though I would add significant content warnings to those searches for abuse of all kinds, especially misogynistic).

One particular manifestation of this dark side (pun intended) that I encounter anytime I talk about Star Wars is those who declare that the prequels “do not exist” (as if they somehow live in a parallel universe where the movies were not made and released), which has also led to the social media meme/trend where “real” fan-parents pledge to only show their children Episodes IV-VI, “as it should be.” I covered my personal frustration with this attitude in the Afterword of The Science Fiction Reboot but, the TL;DR of my take on the prequels versus original trilogy “debate” would be that it was never going to be possible for anyone, let alone a mere mortal like George Lucas, to recapture the magic fans associate with those original three movies for those who saw them between 1977 and 1999. What can be indisputably observed, however, is the magical effect the prequel trilogy and related television series (Clone Wars and now Rebels) has on the children born after 2000, who encounter all six episodes. The magic lives.

There are also those who have expressed similar indignation at the canon “trim” to the Star Wars universe currently in process at Lucasfilm/Disney Studios. Some fans who enjoyed the extended universe (primarily the novel series that continued the story post-Return of the Jedi) are quite distressed that the events and characters in those stories will not be part of the ongoing canon. And they have been quite vocal, even vulgar, about it online.

To use the cliche, it seems we are either damned if we do and damned if we don’t. Not all changes to canon in reboots work for all fans. And when we write it that directly, it seems so obvious. Yet, there are those who seem to believe that their self-proclaimed status in a particular fandom endows them with the authority to pass judgment over what is “allowed” in canon and what is not. Such “authority” also seems to include deciding who may identify as a fan and who may not. I’m not talking about criticism or critique; I mean outright rejection of a text’s existence as part of the canon. I have said to my students several times over various genre courses that when you reject a text, whether it is a reboot or a sequel or even just a story arc you didn’t like, you are also rejecting the fans of that text at the same time.

That is not the fandom community I want to be a part of. Rather, I can illustrate what fandom community can be with a brief story about the first time I saw Avengers: Age of Ultron on its opening weekend this past May. I was attending the Northeast Modern Language Association conference in Toronto and so went to a screening with a few fellow scholars. During our dinner after the movie, I spent most of my time answering questions about the Marvel Cinematic Universe for these three friends who were much more well-versed in the comics canon than I can ever hope to be. It could have become a competition at that point, and at other times in fan spaces it has, but we didn’t let it go there.

The competing levels of canon, and differing experiences with these stories, don’t have to be barriers to community or gates keeping the “unworthy” out of the realm. I’ve heard several times at conventions that the great thing about fandom is that when someone learns you haven’t read/watched/played a particular genre favorite, the response is not judgment or disdain but, in the vernacular, a “squee” of “Oh my God, you have to see/read/play it! Let me see if I have a copy with me I can lend you.” I’ve experienced both the dark and the light side of fandom and have seen canon employed for both good and evil (as it were).
Next up in the blog series on fandom and canon: the phenomenon known as “head canon.”

Some Extended Thoughts on Fandom and Canon, a Blog Series; Post #2: Traditions of Storytelling

Earlier this summer, I contributed to Adam Sternbergh’s research for a New York Magazine article on fandom and canon that was published in the July 27 issue (see here for the article). As I wrote in last week’s post, I’m very happy with the way the article turned out but want to share some of my perspectives that didn’t make it into the final published version via a series of weekly blog posts. Today’s focus is the long tradition within Western storytelling of putting one’s own “spin” on canon.

I’ve argued before (see The Science Fiction Reboot) that the conventional view of reboots and franchises as evidence of Hollywood being “lazy” or running out of ideas is ahistorical, even elitist. This year’s target for such crisis rhetoric is Jurassic World, perhaps because Ultron was more clearly a continuation of a long-term saga as opposed to a more conventional sequel like Jurassic World. Retelling and adapting and rebooting stories is as old as, if not older than, Chaucer and the other early modern epics that are so often taught as the foundational texts in the Western literary canon [another, interesting definition of the term here related to my fandom focus but with quite different cultural valuation]. Of course the term “reboot” could only be applied to the cultural-literary phenomenon once computers were invented and became part of the everyday English vernacular.

Many, if not all, of the stories in the Canterbury Tales and others that have survived from that time period were adaptations of culturally familiar stories, as well as those imported from other cultures. For example, when I was doing my doctoral work at Lehigh University, I contributed to a collective web publication that compares John Gower’s “Tale of Constance” in the Confessio Amantis (written in the early 1390s) with its immediate source in Nicholas Trevet’s Of the Noble Lady Constance in his Anglo-Norman Chronicles (written in the early 1330s) (see here for the link: http://www.wcu.edu/johngower/scholarship/beidler/index.html).

It can also be argued that the plays of Shakespeare were reboots and even that the history plays were “real person fan fiction.” Our cultural valuing of the “original” story is a very recent notion and when it is invoked in the twenty-first century, often comes with a tinge of elitism that rejects the blockbusters like the Marvel films or Jurassic World for being “unoriginal.” As both a fan and a scholar of popular culture, I find such complaints and critiques frustrating because of the underlying (as well as overt) exclusionary nature of their message that there is something wrong with those who enjoy and financially support this rote, lazy storytelling, often accompanied by finger-pointing at said masses for not knowing any better. For example, while I do often agree with and more often admire Charlie Jane Anders’s work, her June piece declaring the success of Jurassic World a “terrible thing” for “anybody who loves movies” (see link here: http://io9.com/jurassic-world-is-a-huge-mega-hit-and-that-s-terrible-1713195036) works in this general vein.

Another interesting layer to the meaning of canon, however, relates to classical rhetoric which is conventionally taught as having five “canons”: Invention, Arrangement, Style, Memory, and Delivery. These traditions highlight the ahistorical, even inaccurate, perspective that condemns franchises for being “unoriginal” because the definition of a skilled rhetor was one with a robust memory of a set of commonplaces that would then be arranged into a compelling argument that would then be delivered to the appropriate audience. In other words, those trained in the classical rhetorical tradition we can trace back centuries (problematic though it may be) would find the “lazy” critique puzzling, to say the least.

Next up in the blog series on fandom and canon: The dark side of canon used as an exclusionary tactic and gatekeeping mechanism to separate out “real” fans from the rest of us.

Some Extended Thoughts on Fandom and Canon, a Blog Series. Post #1: Joy of Fandom

Earlier this summer, I contributed to Adam Sternbergh’s research for a New York Magazine article on fandom and canon that was published in the July 27 issue (see here for the article). As many who know me can attest, I can talk and write about the subject of science fiction/fantasy fandom and canon at great length and even in the digital environment, there are limits to the amount of room available for any single article.

I’m very happy with the way the article turned out but wanted to share some of my perspectives that didn’t make it into the final published version in a series of weekly blog posts. Today’s focus is the joy and pleasure that canon brings to the audience experience with a text (meaning film, book, television series, graphic novel, video game, etc.).

Perhaps the most obvious role of canon in any series is that it rewards the long-time viewer and this is especially true for the SF/F genre because of the complex world-building so many series rely upon for their storytelling. This can create a steep barrier to entry for new viewers after several years (or even decades) of material and one could argue that Marvel is getting close to that tipping point in their Phase 2 storylines. The benefits of added pleasure for fans, though, as we search for clues and hints seems to be worth that risk at the moment. Examples of such breadcrumbs within the Marvel Cinematic Universe include the slow reveal that Skye’s birth name is Daisy Johnson over the second season of Agents of SHIELD and the mention of Wakanda in Avengers: Age of Ultron, setting up the introduction of the Black Panther character in an upcoming film.

The impulse to spend more time in the storyworld is one recognized by fan scholars for many years and it seems to fuel the current success of book series/sequels/reboots/spinoffs particularly in the science fiction and fantasy genre.  Essentially, these books/films/shows/games provide devoted fans with another opportunity to experience a story we clearly love. Otherwise, why would we read/watch/play, and more concretely, spend our money? Fandom is about joy and canon is one of the elements of the pleasure fans derive from our favorite stories.

We are currently in an exciting time for this sort of canon-work in many different manifestations. For example, the A Song of Fire and Ice/Game of Thrones saga is running parallel canons between the book series and the HBO show, with both being ongoing as opposed to, for example, Outlander, where a vast majority of the story has already been told. The complexities of these parallel “official” canons are something to watch very closely in terms of fan reactions and behaviors over the coming years. Notions such as spoilers and “faithfulness” to the original source material are likely to be turned on their heads by this story when all is said and done.

In addition, deliberate, high-level attention is being paid to the canon of several other ongoing, high-profile properties, though in seeming opposite directions. While the Star Wars canon is being “trimmed” by Disney in preparation for the upcoming movies, there is no question of extensive and intentional planning within the Marvel Cinematic Universe where breadcrumbs and clues are being established in films years in advance in some cases, all masterminded by Kevin Feige and his team at Marvel Studios (interestingly also owned by Disney).

As I argue in The Science Fiction Reboot, a more conventional explanation for changes to canon in reboots is that it allows for changes and updates to familiar stories. This is usually explained as making the stories “grittier” and less idealistic than their original versions but my perspective is that is a much too limited explanation. For example, as both a scholar and a fan, I was less interested in the Starbuck gender swap in the Battlestar Galactica series reboot and more compelled by the change to Cylon origins. This change to the canon changed the story from one of alien invasion, a la War of the Worlds, to one of the consequences of playing God and creating new life, a la Frankenstein. That is what kept me watching the rebooted series for as long as I did, though eventually I lost interest.

Next up in the blog series on fandom and canon: The long tradition within Western storytelling of putting one’s own “spin” on canon.

Thoughts on the Privilege of a Fortieth Birthday

So today I turn 40. It’s not like this surprised me. I knew it was coming. And being a writer, I’ve been thinking about this for a while, an occupational hazard. I didn’t expect this milestone day to bother me and it doesn’t particularly. But I just had to write down some of these thoughts, to get them out of my head and share them with whomever might be reading, another occupational hazard.

The first, of course, is the requisite retrospective inventory of my life. Things have not turned out the way I planned for my life when I was 15 or even when I was 25 but I’m happy where I am. I won’t say I don’t have any regrets (because I do) and I won’t say I wouldn’t have done anything differently (because I definitely would) but, on balance, my life on this milestone birthday is pretty darn good.

Then there is the number itself. When I was a kid watching TV in the 80s, it was a brave thing for Linda Evans to say “40 isn’t fatal” in a commercial for hair color. It is most definitely odd to think back to that time now that I am 40, and to try to reassemble what I thought being that age would be like. Whatever I imagined isn’t what happened, that’s for sure. It’s also odd to ponder that I can remember very clearly my mother when she was 40. To be honest, she seemed then to have a much better handle on this idea of being an “adult” than I often feel now. But I guess that’s how it should be?

The most powerful and recent of these thoughts, though, is that not everybody gets the privilege of turning 40. I was reminded of this the painful way the weekend of July 4 when I learned that one of my niece’s beloved dance teachers and choreographer had been killed in a traffic accident. This wonderful young woman is described in this blog post by her friend’s mother [picked up by Huffington Post] and when I read her post, I realized that Miss Britni (as she’ll always be known to me because of her dance girls) will never even reach her 30th birthday. I’m not entirely sure that I met Miss Britni in person because the dance performances I’ve attended have always been very chaotic and my focus was always on my niece. But I knew her through the performances she choreographed, the skills she taught, and the confidence she gave to so many young dancers, including one very special 12-year-old near and dear to my heart.

The 2015 tap competition routine choreographed by Miss Britni.

The 2015 tap competition routine choreographed by Miss Britni.

But I’m not one to follow up this realization with the cliché to “live like you’re dying” because there is so much in life to look forward to and so many things worth doing and learning that take time. Reading a long, involved novel series. Learning a new complicated dance combination. Practicing for the yearly recital. Waiting in great anticipation for the new Star Wars movie to be released. Earning a university degree. Those things, and many more, are worth the long view. So if I’ve taken any lesson from this loss, today on my 40th birthday, it’s to both be grateful for today and to look forward to what’s next, because not everybody gets that chance.

Where to find me at Arisia 2015…

Better late than never…if you are attending Arisia 2015 this weekend, here is my panel schedule. I’m excited to talk about each of these and hope you are as well. See you there?

Friday, January 16

Panel #379: Fairy Tales on Film and TV

Location: Marina 1

Track: Media

Day/Time: Fri 10:00 PM

Description: Between Once Upon a Time and Grimm on television, and movies like Maleficent and Frozen, it’s a good time for fans of entertainment based on fairy tales. What makes these works so effective at translating these classics into other media? Why aren’t we seeing more works based on fairy tales and folklore from other cultures? What other works are coming up that deserve to be highlighted?

I am moderating this panel, which will also feature Monica Castillo, George Claxton, James Macdonald, David Olsen, and Hanna Lee Rubin Abramowitz (H-chan).

 

 

Saturday, January 17

Panel #355: Marvel Cinematic (and TV) Universe, 2015

Location: Marina 1

Track: Media

Day/Time: Sat 7:00 PM

Description: In 2014, we saw Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Captain America: The Winter Soldier deal with global corruption, while Guardians of the Galaxy took on Thanos and Ronan. As this panel takes place, we’ll have Agent Carter on TV, with a Netflix Daredevil show hitting in May. We’ll talk about where this increasingly complex and connected universe goes from here, and how things are looking after the last year.

I will be participating on this panel, moderated by Shira Lipkin, along with Elektra Hammond, Ed Fuqua, Kevin Cafferty, and Gillian Daniels.

 

 

Sunday, January 18

Panel #1176: TV Writing: Sci-Fi/Fantasy/Horror/Genre

Location: Alcott

Track: Writing

Day/Time: Sun 1:00 PM

Description: We often talk about what we like and don’t like about particular TV shows, but it’s not easy to tell some genre tales right on the screen. Our panelists discuss the challenges of telling supernatural tales for TV and film, what the limitations of the medium mean for telling those stories, and common pitfalls of writing for TV/films.

I will be participating on this panel, moderated by Thomas Vitale, along with Steve Sawicki, Randee Dawn Kestenbaum (Randee Dawn), and Chris Denmead (Dr. Chris).

 

 

Panel #572: Outlander: Scotland, Romance, and Time Travel

Location: Marina 3

Track: Media

Day/Time: Sun 4:00 PM

Description: Outlander has been a huge hit for Starz. How well has Diana Gabaldon’s series translated to the small screen? Does it reflect the tone that fans expected? Is it really aimed at viewers not familiar with the plot? Does the amount of sexual violence in a female-centric fantasy differentiate it or make it indistinguishable from material like A Game of Thrones? Join us for a fun, spoiler-filled discussion!

I am moderating this panel, which will also feature Gayle Blake, Forest Handford, Trisha Wooldridge, and Anna Erishkigal.

 

Panel #1100: Fear Is the Mind-Killer: Dune at Fifty

Location: Marina 2

Track: Literature

Day/Time: Sun 7:00 PM

Description: In 1965, Frank Herbert’s Dune, which went on to win the 1966 Hugo award, was published. Arriving in the wake of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring a few years earlier, Dune was perhaps the first SF novel to explore ecology on a grand scale. It has spawned several sequels, been adapted into multiple filmed adaptations, and inspired countless works of music in several genres. Come celebrate the 50th anniversary of this seminal work.

I will be participating on this panel, moderated by Ken Schneyer, along with Max Gladstone, Karl G Heinemann, and John Chu.

 

 

 

Panel #562: Topical, Typical, and Trope-ical

Location: Marina 2

Track: Literature

Day/Time/: Sun 8:30 PM

Description: Essays are devoted to analyzing them and TVTropes curates them. “Tropes” usually refer to the motifs we’re used to consuming in fiction, like the Casanova, the Action Girl, the Trickster, or the Hero’s Journey. What families and variations of archetypes add to the grand, literary tradition, and what are the stale, even harmful stereotypes readers could do without?

I will be participating on this panel, moderated by Adam Lipkin, along with Gordon Linzner, Israel Peskowitz, and James Macdonald.

 

Oh, and the Merida costume and Jedi robe will be making appearances this con as well…

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CFP for A Second New Edited Collection (Memory in Post-Apocalyptic and Dystopian Tales)

I am thrilled to announce that I have signed another contract with McFarland for a companion collection to Essays on Memory in Popular Culture, this one focusing just on the way memory works in post-apocalyptic and dystopian stories. The tentative title is Recovering What We’ve Lost: Essays on Memory in Post-Apocalyptic and Dystopian Tales. See the below for details and please consider submitting an abstract, or sharing the CFP with anyone you know who might be interested.

Summary

Upcoming collection on memory in post-apocalyptic and dystopian stories, under contract with McFarland and Company, seeks proposals for academic essays on the complex role of rhetorical and social memory in science fiction/fantasy, fandom, and online gaming. Abstracts due 1/5/15 with final essays due 6/1/15.

 

 

Details

For the upcoming collection Recovering What We’ve Lost: Essays on Memory in Post-Apocalyptic and Dystopian Tales, I am seeking abstracts for essays to be included in a collection designed to blend the classical rhetorical concepts of memory with more post-modern approaches to the notion of social and public memory as a lens for examining stories set in post-apocalyptic and/or dystopian settings across many media. Essays analyzing films, television shows, online games, and graphic novels are being requested along with those focusing on traditional print fiction.

 

This collection looks to directly connect two overlapping cultural trends of the early 21st century: the popularity of post-apocalyptic/dystopian speculative fiction and concerns over the ways we remember and memorialize the world around us. Fears regarding the “outsourcing” of memory in the 21st century (to smartphones and other digital devices) are echoes of past panics about loss of memory (such as Plato’s famous complaint about writing). But the current panic is as ahistorical as the previous ones in that much of recorded history relies on memory objects that foster and celebrate shared cultural memories. These might be the ballads of old heroes and monsters or the monuments commemorating great battles or simply a family Bible keeping track of the generations. The power of such memory objects is one reason that post-apocalyptic and dystopian tales resonate so strongly across the generations.

 

As genre and cultural studies scholars have argued before, the post-apocalyptic and dystopian strains of speculative fiction more often than not carry a message of hope. This optimism takes several forms such as recovery of freedom/civilization, resilience of the survivors to carry on, and successful prevention of the dystopia on the part of readers. David Brin has called this tendency the “self-preventing prophecy” and while not all tales in this category fit that mold, many do.

 

A key part of that recovery and resilience is the collective social memory of the characters within the story. At times, the history has been lost and must be reconstructed (see Canticle for Leibowitz) while other stories focus on the characters’ attempts in the immediate aftermath to preserve the cultural memory (as in the show Falling Skies). Much of the power of post-apocalyptic stories lies in the ruins of the familiar: the decaying monuments in Logan’s Run, the traces of familiar English in the dialects of Canticle, the brief mention of the “ancient” form of self-governance known as democracy in Mockingjay. Meanwhile, the power of the state, or other controlling entity, in dystopian tales very often relies on their ability to control information not only about the present, but especially about the past as well.

 

I am particularly interested in receiving abstracts for essays by and about texts from under-represented groups across the spectrum and the globe. In addition, graduate students and junior faculty are especially encouraged to submit abstracts. Anticipated themes of this collection include, but are not limited to,

  • Ancient Memory: Allusions to Shared Myths and Legends
  • Memories of Domestic Life: Hearth and Home
  • Memorials and Landmarks: Visual Symbols of Loss
  • Stolen, not Lost: Authoritarian Control over Information and Memory
  • Entertainments of the Past (Music, Novels, Theater)
  • The immediate past (such as V for Vendetta) compared to long-lost past (such as Hunger Games and Canticle)

While the underlying premise of this collection is rhetorically based, interdisciplinary approaches are most desirable. In particular, my goal is to collect perspectives that cover the intersection of contemporary interpretations and explorations of the ancient rhetorical canon of memory, narrative theory, and cultural studies. Please also keep in mind, however, that the primary audience includes both fans and academics so the approach should be accessible to interested, but not expert, readers.

 

Abstracts (250-500 words) proposing essays of 5-7,000 words each will be accepted until January 5, 2015, with completed essays due June 2015. Please send the abstracts as attached Word files to Heather Urbanski at memoryinsf_book @ icloud.com.