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.

My finalized LonCon3 schedule (where to find me at WorldCon next week)

In case you might have missed the news, the World Science Fiction Convention begins next week in London. And I’m so excited (and not just because I’ll be debuting a new hall costume inspired by Brave’s Merida).

My official programming appearances are on Saturday, Sunday, and Monday (see below) but I am also planning on attending the events on Thursday to open the academic conference.

Come and find me and we’ll chat about….well, I’m sure if you follow me on social media and are at WorldCon, we’ll have plenty of topics.

Hope to see you there!

I’ll also be in Dublin the next weekend for Shamrokon (the Dublin Eurocon 2014) and hope to have that schedule finalized soon.

 

 

Thursday, August 14

“Diversity in Speculative Fiction”: Welcome to the Academic Conference

Capital Suite 6 (Level 3), 10:30am – 11am

A chance to find out what the academic programme is and to meet (other) academics at the event before the first session. Please bring your own drinks along.

 

Diversity in Speculative Fiction Conference Reception

South Gallery 21/22, 10pm – 11:30pm

A reception primarily aimed at participants in the academic programme “Diversity in Speculative Fiction” but open to those who are interested in meeting the academics and discussing the programme with them. It is sponsored by the Science Fiction Foundation, who will be publishing selected papers drawn from the programme in the journal Foundation: The International Review of Science Fiction.

 

 

Saturday, August 16

Place and Time: Capital Suite 6 (Level 3), 9:30am – 11am

Panel Title: Mediated Boundaries

Panelists: Jo Lindsay Walton, Pawel Frelik, Colin Harvey, Heather Urbanski

Three academics each give a 15 minute presentation. These are followed by a jointly held 30 minute discussion with the audience.

  • Heather Urbanski, “Narratology of Science Fiction and Fantasy Franchises”**
  • Colin B Harvey, “Tink Talks! Transmedia Memory and Neverland”
  • Pawel Frelik, “Subversive Moddernity—Fantastic Game Modification and Politics”

**I’ll be presenting the latest version of my analysis of Agents of SHIELD, Hunger Games, and Once Upon a Time as narratively disruptive franchises.

 

Sunday, August 17

Place and Time: Capital Suite 1 (Level 3), 10am – 11am

Panel Title: Working for a Living

Panelists: Martin McGrath, Donna Scott, Susan Connolly, Alison Page, Heather Urbanski

Most SF TV focuses on (and is written by!) professional/white collar/middle class individuals. But a few recent examples — such as The Walking Dead, True Blood, Orphan Black and Misfits — have included a greater focus on working class/blue collar experiences. How does this affect the stories such shows tell, the range of characters and identities they include, and how they use their fantastic elements?

 

Place and Time: Capital Suite 15 (Level 3), 1:30pm – 3pm

Panel Title: Secrecy in Science

Panelists: David L Clements, Katie Mack, Heather Urbanski, Carolina Gómez Lagerlöf, Sunil Patel, Leah-Nani Alconcel

What role does secrecy have in science? Should drug companies be allowed to hide trial data from their competitors? Should scientists be allowed to publish papers and not the data they are based on? Is there a place for commercial confidentiality in space missions? But if everything is open, how will anybody get commercial benefit from new inventions and discoveries? And do we really want DNA sequences for super-flu, and the designs for dirty bombs and plutonium refineries to be available to all?

 

 

Monday, August 18

Place and Time: Capital Suite 13 (Level 3), 12pm – 1:30pm

Panel Title: Brave Young World

Panelists: Cory Doctorow, Gillian Redfearn, Heather Urbanski, David Farnell

How is the nature of young people’s reading changing, and how should it change the ways we write and publish? Are new forms of storytelling emerging along with new technologies?

 

 

 

Where to find me at the 2014 Popular Culture/American Culture conference

For those of you attending the Popular Culture/American Culture Association conference (in Chicago from April 16-19), here is where you can find me. Hope to see you there!

 

 Thursday, April 17

Time: 1:45 pm

Science Fiction and Fantasy Area Pizza Party

Location: Lincolnshire 2

 

Time: 5:00 pm

President’s Reception/Awards

Location: 7th Floor Salon 2

 

 

Friday, April 18

Time: 6:30 pm

Session #: 3726: Narrative

Location: Lincolnshire 1

I will be chairing this session and presenting my paper “Narratology of Franchises” along with three other scholars:

  • Christopher Cerimele (Eastern Florida State College): Selling Superficiality: The Disneyfication of Bloom’s Taxonomy and Science Fiction Narratives
  • Laura Osur (Syracuse University): Defiance: An Experiment in Transmedia Storytelling
  • Courtney Neal (DePaul University): Expect the Unexpected: Inverting Character and Narrative in Once Upon a Time

 

 

Saturday, April 19

Time: 8:15 pm

Science Fiction and Fantasy Area Movie Night (Beginning of the End)

Location: Lincolnshire 2

 

 

And you will also find me wandering around the lobby and book room quite often at other times as well. I’ll have copies of the Memory in Popular Culture collection CFP to distribute as well.

Comfort Books and Hugo Reading: Spring Break 2014

Even though we are expecting snow here in Fitchburg tomorrow, this is officially Spring Break for me and the rest of Fitchburg State, which means time to catch up on my reading and writing, as well as grading and class prep for the second half of the spring semester.

Like most of you, my own To Be Read pile is so long that it will never be completed but I do have an upcoming deadline that will determine my priorities this week: the March 31st nomination deadline for the 2014 Hugo Awards.

And while the John W. Campbell award is “not a Hugo,” I’m starting my reading for the nomination period with the 2014 Campbell award anthology so that I can round out my ballot. I already know that I am nominating Lissa Price (her Starters/Enders series captivated me) and I can’t wait to discover other new genre authors as well.

I’ll also be working through the other works on my recommendation post from last month over the next few weeks, as well as those other fans have shared with me, but not all of my pleasure reading will be new.

I’ve been thinking a lot about “comfort books” lately, largely because one of my enduring favorites just recently became available as an ebook: A Woman of Substance by Barbara Taylor Bradford. I first read this romance novel, and its two sequels, when I was in seventh grade and they were the first books I read that were not aimed at my own age group. And they have stuck with me so much that I’m thrilled to have Woman of Substance with me now wherever I go.

And that reminded me of something I explained to my niece when I was unpacking my boxes this summer. There are several books that I have kept from when I was her age, I told her, and even though I don’t read these copies anymore, they remind me of my early years as a reader.

These are the books I showed her:

The Shelf of Honor: My Comfort Books

The Shelf of Honor: My Comfort Books

Included on this shelf of honor are my battered paperback copies of the Woman of Substance trilogy, two of the Little House books, several from YA-fantasy authors Lois Duncan and Robin McKinley, a novel about ballet dancers, and finally, the historical novel Summer of My German Soldier (which, by the way, is the only one of that set I was assigned to read for “English” class).

These are my comfort stories, the ones that cemented themselves into my consciousness and in many ways define my tastes for popular culture today. This makes me wonder, what are your comfort books?