Thursday, May 19, 2022

Book Review: "Fandom: Confidential" by Ron Frantz

Fandom: Confidential by Ron Frantz (Midguard, 2000)

This memoir details a portion of comic book fandom with which I was unfamiliar. While I recognized some of the names and fanzines involved (The Rocket’s Blast–Comicollector!), the bulk of the story takes place in the mid-1970s and involves an organization I didn’t even know existed. Regardless, it’s a fascinating read and is relevant to this day.

Frantz, the author, wrote the book between 1978-1980 before setting it aside for almost two decades, eventually returning to it about 20 years ago. At the time, the story he wanted to tell was still somewhat painful, perhaps political, and certainly controversial. When the book was finally finished and published, the memories were slightly less painful and likely to raise a ruckus among still-active fen.

Before the advent of eBay and other fandom sales platforms, buying, selling, and trading comic books through the mail was a potentially risky endeavor. You didn’t know who someone was. You didn’t know whether they actually possessed what you thought you were buying. And there was little recourse for deals gone wrong. (Some might say that that is still the case even with eBay!)

A man named Stanley Blair founded comic book fandom’s first adzine and first trade association to help buyers and sellers engage in their trade with greater competence and confidence. The adzine, Stan’s Weekly Express (WE), launched in 1969 to help network the business side of comics fandom. During its first year, Blair developed a mailing list of almost 20,000 nostalgia collectors.The WE Reporting Bureau (WRB) helped record, report, investigate, and persecute mail fraud within the hobby. And the WE Seal of Approval (WSA) helped identify which buyers, sellers, and other tradesmen–and women–were trustworthy and worthy of business. Its logo–and a seller’s WSA number–was intended as a badge of honor. 

Like the National Fantasy Fan Federation, WE, the WRB, and the WSA were an attempt to organize fandom, to connect practitioners of a hobby and business, and to establish group norms and standards for their interactions. (The N3F even merits a definition in the book’s “Fandom Glossary.”) Similar to sf and fantasy fandom, comics fandom faced its own challenges. Frantz served as administrator of the WSA for more than two years, and his book is a wide-ranging exploration of comic book history, comics fandom, the rise and fall of the WSA, and other developments in the hobby. Not all of it is rosy.

Given the nature of comics fandom, Frantz focuses more on collecting and the commercial side of things than sf and fantasy fans might, generally. Literary and media fen aren’t necessarily collectors in the same way as hardcore comics fen might be. Regardless, there’s a lot of interest adjacent to sf fandom. Frantz briefly retells the history of comic books, its fanzines, and fandom, drawing parallels to other modes of publishing that yielded their own fandom under the umbrella of nostalgia fandom (pulp magazines, old-time radio, and the like).

He considers the history and controversies surrounding the first comic book price guides–and the impact they had on the hobby. He considers the development of local comics fan clubs such as the Oklahoma Alliance of Fans. He looks at the evolution of The Nostalgia Journal into The Comics Journal, as well as The Buyer’s Guide for Comic Fandom into The Comics Buyer’s Guide. He details the controversial introduction of Fandom Directory, which continues to this day online. And he looks at the occasional collisions comics fandom experienced with other forms.

Along those lines, Frantz takes a look at the impact that the emergence of media fandom and Star Trek had on the nostalgia and collectibles trade. As the television show and its resulting fandom grew in popularity, fen began buying and selling collectibles related to the program, occasionally drawing the attention of the WSA and its mail fraud division. In 1976, for example, 25 percent of the mail fraud cases under investigation by the WRB involved Star Trek fen. 

In several cases, members of the Star Trek Welcommittee itself even got involved in an attempt to hamper investigations. People operating the Star Trek Association for Revival weren’t honoring paid memberships, and Welcommittee members operated individual chapters of STAR. A fan club for Nichelle Nichols became unable to meet its obligations to members, in part because of a printing imbroglio involving the Welcommittee newsletter and a misplaced contract. And a member of the Welcommittee misrepresented himself as a friend of Isaac Asimov while corresponding with a young writer, encouraging her to write stories of a sexual nature for a supposed anthology and asking her to share a hotel room during a con. The results of that investigation were published in a number of Star Trek fanzines, attracting the ire of the Welcommittee.

While the fan feud stories make for juicy reading, the book remains largely the tale of WE, the WRB, and the WSA. Its rise and fall also make for juicy reading. While the worthy business it undertook is notable, so is its own experience with internal divisions, personality conflicts, and controversy. To quote Depeche Mode, “People are people, so why should it be you and I should get along so awfully?” Frantz himself offers a clue: “Historically, science fiction and comic book fans have difficulty seeing eye to eye.” That can be true even within one specific fandom. “[M]any people forget why they became fans and collectors,” Frantz wrote. “Activity that begins as a means of recreation and pleasure is prone to change when avocation becomes vocation. … [I]t has an unfortunate tendency to bring out the worst in some people.”

I think that’s the rub. Stories like those in Fandom: Confidential occur when the idealism and passion of fen become overwhelmed by a fan’s caring too much about something that takes up too much of their time, energy, and attention. Regardless of whether you believe FIAWOL or FIJAGH, don’t lose your sense of wonder. If fandom becomes just another job, we’re doing it wrong.

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