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.