Sunday, May 14, 2006

Critiquing the "Fanfiction" Critique

I mentioned this in one of my 20 Questions earlier today, and I figured it was worth a further look. I think "It was like fan fiction" is not a good critique of a comic book writer's performance.

My main (heck, I think it may actually be my ONLY) reason is that it is just too nebulous of a definition. Can anyone pin-point what it means to be writing comics like fan-fiction, with the inference being that it is a BAD thing? The way I have often seen it read has been more like "I just don't like this writer's writing, so I am calling it fan-fiction, because it sounds really dismissive."

I don't deny the impact of fan-fiction upon criticism. In fact, one of the most popular terms that I like to use COMES from fan-fiction criticism, namely, Mary Sue, which has evolved from its original fan-fiction definition, which was when a writer literally wrote themselves (or a avatar of themself) into a fan-fiction, to a broader definition in writing when a writer uses a "pet" character in much the same way that fan-fiction writers used characters based on themselves (and, of course, this doesn't preclude the inclusion of a character based on the writer/writer's significant other in the comic, either).

However, as a descriptive term, "fan-fiction" seems about as descriptive to me as "super-hero." In other words, it is not very descriptive at all.

Especially in the post Roy Thomas era, where basically every comic book writer working was first a comic book FAN, so how could they NOT be influenced by their own fan experiences?

How is that a bad thing, per se?

I mean, to say New Excalibur is "fan-fiction" seems odd to me, as writing about the characters that he wants to write about was basically how Chris Claremont wrote the Uncanny X-Men for seventeen years. So how is it "fan-fiction" now?

Unless, of course, fan-fiction is just supposed to be universally reviled, so that just by using the term, a critic can express his/her displeasure with a writer's work.

I guess I can see that.

But that's not all that good of a critique, is it?

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18 Comments:

Anonymous Jordan D. White said...

Agreed.

It's like someone reviewing movies, TV, or novels saying that something is "like a comic books" or "comic book-y". They mean it's poorly written, and they associate that with comic books. Always aggravates me.

5/14/2006 11:20:00 PM  
Anonymous Iron Lungfish said...

I think there's certainly a difference between a writer exploring new ideas to create a new and more engaging story and a writer who's primarily concerned with touching on odd little continuity points from decades past while rehashing and repolishing items of constant fan obsession. If people want to deride the second one as "fan fiction," go ahead - that stuff deserves derision.

5/14/2006 11:46:00 PM  
Blogger T. said...

I think fanfic is a great critique of a writer personally. Gail Simone used to do this great parody of fanfiction over at her "You'll All Be Sorry" one day column at CBR using a fake fanfic writer named Brendan "Nightwing" Hockenberry. Basically fanfic is like porn.

Fanfic writing is like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart's famous quote about porn: "I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced . . . [b]ut I know it when I see it . . . "

Fanfic writing is hard to describe, but we know it when we see it. The broadest definition is when the writer is more interested in fan service and self-aggrandizement than telling a good story. For examples of fan service, you can have a laundry list of gratuitous forced guest appearances by lots of popular characters (i.e. Hush and Long Halloween), long narrative passages of heroes waxing poetic about their admiration for each other (like Jeph Loeb's Brokeback Superman/Batman caption boxes), team-ups that make no sense but are cool simply because it involves fan-favorites (like when Michilinie used to have Spider-Man and Punisher team up without Spider-Man raising any objections to the wholesale slaughter), really over-the-top cliched noir narrative (this is considered fan service because it helps reassure the fan that what he's reading is indeed for adults and not for kids, therefore he shouldn't feel silly for reading it). For examples of self-aggrandizement, we have the Mary Sues that you mention.

Basically, that's my definition of fanfic writing: excessive use of fan service moments and Mary Sues. DC for the past few years has been chock full of fanfic writing, with the single biggest example being COuntdown to Infinite Crisis. Abhay's review of it locates every one of the fanfic elements I describe and effectively mocks them to death. Good review.

5/15/2006 12:02:00 AM  
Blogger T. said...

Another example of fan service that you see in fanfic writing: clearing up an odd continuity point from 10 or 20-some years ago just because it was never followed up upon and you've had a stick in your craw about it. Kurt Busiek would dedicate whole arcs to that kind of stuff in his Avengers. One more fan service technique you find in fanfic writing is the sister to the bad noir narrative: the ridiculously maudlin narrative. This serves the same purpose as the bad noir narrative, which is to remind the fan feel like he's reading something adult and not for kids, no matter how many supertights appear in the book. Brad Meltzer's inauthentic depiction of emotions in Identity Crisis is a perfect example of the Maudlin Narrative.

5/15/2006 12:09:00 AM  
Blogger Evan Waters said...

I may have to agree with the OP here- even all the things being hashed out here sound too scattershot.

Also, the definition of fanfiction, really, is fiction about prepublished characters done without any copyright clearance or explicit approval by creators or owners. It's a legal thing which encompasses all kinds of actual tones and approaches.

On the other hand I suppose you could make it work if you were more specific about what's "fanfic"-esque about a work.

5/15/2006 02:02:00 AM  
Blogger T. said...

"Fanfic writing" is a good starting point for a criticism, then you can specify which exact parts of the work were like fanfic.

I look at it like this, what's the word "racketeering" when you really stop and think about it? It can relate to any of a number of different activities that, while all illegal, are only held together by the fact that you need an organized group to do it. It can be point shaving, union infiltration, protection extortion, illegal card games, prostitution, drugs...does that mean that racketeering is a poor, descriptive term? No, because once you hear that term you get a clear idea of what they're like and you're usually right.

Farfetched analogy, I know, but I believe that its the same with the term fanfic writing. Sure it can cover a bunch of different activities, but all those activities basically add up to the same thing: when the urge to service the fanboy impulse and to Mary Sue outweigh the urge to tell a solid, accessible story. The moment I hear that a story has fanfic-level writing, I get a general idea of what type of story I'm in for, even before I hear the exact details.

5/15/2006 05:58:00 AM  
Anonymous Jordan D. White said...

Hey, T.:

"Fanfic writing" is a good starting point for a criticism, then you can specify which exact parts of the work were like fanfic."

I disagree. If you have good reasons to think the work is poorly written (which you seem to, given your explanations in previous posts) I would say just give those reasons, rather than muddy the issue by using the term fanfic.

Also, as much as I think your definition of fanfic is well thought out and reasoned, I don't think it is really very true. What it seems liek you are really doing is listing all the things you don't like in comics and ascibing them to fanfic. Now, I don't read fanfic, but I find it hard to believe that it does all of those things.

"I look at it like this, what's the word "racketeering" when you really stop and think about it? It can relate to any of a number of different activities that, while all illegal, are only held together by the fact that you need an organized group to do it."

Yes, but, as Evan mentioned, when yo mention fanfic, the actual definition is "fiction about prepublished characters done without any copyright clearance or explicit approval by creators or owners." The ONLY thing that makes fanfic fanfic is the legal status, not the quality. I am sure there is really good fanfic out there.

I mean, just use the word "crap". Everyone knows what crap means: it just means no good, stinky, 'something I don't like'. If we go through your post and replace the use of "fanfic" with "crap", it works just as well.

"Basically, that's my definition of crap writing: excessive use of fan service moments and Mary Sues. DC for the past few years has been chock full of crap writing, with the single biggest example being COuntdown to Infinite Crisis."

Again, to me it is exactly the way "serious" critics of other arts use "comic book" as an insult. To them, conjuring the image of a comic book is a terrible insult that implies the worst kind of writing and story. They are not implying that it is like "Watchmen", they are assuming we all hold a vision of comics as the lowest common denominator. What they really mean is the movie is lousy, but they say it "comic book-y".

5/15/2006 11:43:00 AM  
Anonymous Jordan D. White said...

Damn, I am typo-master. I need to read more carefully. Sorry.

5/15/2006 11:44:00 AM  
Blogger The Fortress Keeper said...

The only time "fan-fic" comes into play in my terminology is when stories use established characters to work out some sort of sexual fetish. For example, Winick's story where Seven Deadly Sins to get a buncha villains to drop everything and suddenly make out is a lot like Buffy porn - not that I make of habit of reading such things of course!!! :)

The Legion story where it was revealed that Proty impersonated Lightning Lad for years and married Saturn Girl was another weird one ...

5/15/2006 07:20:00 PM  
Blogger Apodaca said...

I think you can say a writer's work is like fan-fiction, as long as you mean something by that and aren't just using it as an insult.

For example, if you open up the newest issue of X-Men and there's a new character who the guys are all falling for, who just happens to have the same name as the writer's wife?

That's fan-fiction.

Or if a weird love-triangle suddenly develops between Storm, Wolverine, and Nightcrawler, even though these characters have been together for decades and never acted like this before?

That's some fan-fiction.

5/15/2006 07:45:00 PM  
Anonymous Filipe said...

I agree with Jordan.

As well thought as most of T.'s post was, I kept thinking that "does this stuff are always a bad thing?". Let's get a writer as example: Dan Slott. Spider-man/Human Touch mini is pretty much five issues worth of fan service, with issues were Slott is more worried in mention onscure stuff like Spider's car than in tell an actual story, and, still, I know a lot of people who doesn't know much about spider-man before McFarlane that find the whole thing great fun. A lot of Slott's She-Hulk play exactly like that. He has done issues that seem to exist so to address discussion board questions ("why doesn't Spider-man sues Jameson?"), gratuitious guests (the Hercules issue didn't even bothered to actually tie him to what Jennifer was doing), find a obscure ways to bring a favorite of his into the book (Two-Gun Kid), lots of reference to not that well known stories (Mockinbird's death, Two-Gun Kid adventures wih the Avengers, Infinity Gauntlet), and also have used the book quite often to complain about Disasambled. Now let's take an a particular fanfic issue #4 of current series. That issue exists to do two things:
1 - To Explain to obsessed fans what She-Hulk did while the book was in hiatus.
2 - To Revisit an arc of Geoff Johns mediocre (and by know already forgotten) Avengers run were Shulkie goes in hulk-style rampage (it even used Scott Kollins the penciller who drew the original arc as guest artist).
If Slott had come out with a tortured issue obsessed with either explain why Jennifer doesn't have any blame on what hapenned or just idnuge himself in the usual "Hulk feels guilty after rampage" story, one could easily put it down as very bad writing (and I guess a lot of people would simple call it fan fiction). Instead Slott does the usual very solid fun issue of his book, keeping the tone intact (not that easy a job with his set-up), never slaving himself to Johns original story (while also don't doing anything to piss continuity-obsessed fans) and adding enough small idea to keeping the issue fresh, but yet at the end of the day the issue pleads guilty to a lot of what T.'s call fan fiction.

If one hates Rebirth, go on and write about how it's not a story but a series of plot points that need to be done so Hal Jordan could get a clean slate and then show how Johns fails to do anything interesting with his assigment. THat would be a good review. Now, writing a review that pretty much just says "Rebirth is bad, because Geoff Johns just write fan fiction" is pretty innefective criticism.

5/16/2006 03:34:00 AM  
Blogger Brian Cronin said...

I agree with the people who are agreeing with me (shocking, I know).

If a term has an amorphous definition that is basically shorthand for "bad writing," then it just isn't effective enough.

5/16/2006 04:15:00 AM  
Blogger T. said...

Filipe, I respectfully disagree. Slott is not fanfiction because the good story comes first. The test to me is if the story would still be accessible and well-crafted if you took out the fan service or Mary Sues. In Slott's case, each tale in Spidey/Human Torch was self-contained, relatively accessible (you could figure out who everyone was through the context of the story, even if you weren't an expert on them), it had great dialogue, characterization and interplay.

Rebirth, for example, is the opposite. Take away the winks and nods and look at it without nostalgia and affection and it's just horrendous. Cheesy, forced dialogue, caption after caption filled with fawning narrative, long bouts of exposition...

The word "Fanfic" alone is not a complete criticism, but what one-word or two-word criticism IS complete enough on its own? "Hateful?" "Racist?" "Crap?" "Awesome?" "Overly edgy?" "Visionary?" Like any one-word or two-word criticism, you eventually have to back it up with more specific examples, but that doesn't invalidate the initial one or two-word critique. As soon as I hear the "fanfic" critique, I know it was likely a case of excess use of fan service and Mary Sues in lieu of good story elements. I then expect the reviewer to give more specific critiques after that initial categorization, .

5/16/2006 03:54:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What's funny is that Gail Simone used to write fan-fiction, so she was in a good position to write a parody of it.

It's not a good term for criticism. It's a good term for arm-chair pop culture analysis, and is about as useful. If Comics Should Be Good, Comics Criticism Should Be Good--and more thoughtful.

5/18/2006 12:06:00 PM  
Blogger Brian Cronin said...

"It's not a good term for criticism. It's a good term for arm-chair pop culture analysis, and is about as useful. If Comics Should Be Good, Comics Criticism Should Be Good--and more thoughtful."

That sounds reasonable to me.

5/18/2006 05:57:00 PM  
Blogger T. said...

"It's not a good term for criticism. It's a good term for arm-chair pop culture analysis, and is about as useful. If Comics Should Be Good, Comics Criticism Should Be Good--and more thoughtful."

I respectfully disagree. If you just say "It's fanfiction" and leave it alone at that, sure that's bad. But that goes for any short criticism: "It's funny" "It's disgusting" "It's brilliant" "It's got mad ideas (The MOrrison crowd loves that one". If you use any of those terms for your critique and don't continue past that, they won't say much either. "Fanfic" gives you a great idea of what KIND of bad you're in for, then it's up to the reviewer to specifically point out the elements of the story that make it fanfic.

I'm going as far as to say that "fanfic" is probably one of the best criticisms out there.

5/19/2006 02:31:00 PM  
Blogger Grant said...

I'm guilty of this.

I use it to describe somebody like Robert Kirkman who is a good writer but whenever he's working on someone else's characters he's a bit too respectful of them. He doesn't shake things up too much and characters behave how the reader wants them to behave rather then how they should behave in that situation. Everything is just a tad predictable.

5/21/2006 06:47:00 PM  
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