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Rocket Bomber Special: Ten Levels of Fandom

filed under , 3 May 2010, 21:33 by

Level I: Obscure Fandoms

definition: there are too many obscure fandoms to count — as many as stars in the sky, books in the bookstore, or videos at the near-extinct local rental place.

poster boy: To pick my own? Atlanta’s now defunct Beer Garten (not a typo, and not the proper-Deutsch “Atlanta Bier Garten” or proper-English “Atlanta Beer Garden” but the-owners-obviously-don’t-know-German-but-they-might-have-seen-it-once “Beer Garten”) (and link – “I will likely mourn the Beer Garten until the day I die.”)

- the thing about level 1 fandoms is that no one has ever really heard of them, past a very small handful of fans. This is, in fact, their defining characteristic. This does not make these fandoms any less rabid.

Level II: One-Shot Fandoms

definition: we’ve all heard of it, it was kind-of-a-big-thing once but then died six months later.

poster boy: The Black Hole

- at level 2, the property gets nation-wide exposure, a big budget, and a major push by a corporation, and usually makes quite a bit of money. The memories linger long after the project leaves the limelight — or really, any kind of relevancy — eventually it becomes just another component of the overall nostalgia-compost of a generation’s collective memory.

Level III: Wholly Owned Fandoms

definition: you know that one movie, with the sequels? an established corporate-owned property that is popular, and has ‘fans’, but doesn’t inspire or encourage fan participation or secondary works

poster boy: The Mighty Ducks

- obviously, I’m being hipster-ironic when I pick the Mighty Ducks as a fandom — but there are always the Anaheim Ducks — I’ll remind you, an actual NHL franchise — to prove that some ‘jokes’ get deadly serious before you can even finish off your PBR Tallboy. The actual level of fan ‘participation’ in level 3 fandoms is questionable, but someone, somewhere with a PR budget is still pushing this thing. That is not to say that if you happen to like a wholly-owned fandom, you’re in the wrong; obviously, someone has to like it or the whole thing fails.

Level IV: Established Fandoms

definition: A solid property that is enjoyed by many; one with a long half-life that takes quite some time to taper off, and that merits and survives the occasional reboot.

poster boys: James Bond, Dr. Who

- there are a number of properties that are popular, well known, and when the owners deign to make new product, manage to capture both the media spotlight and enthusiasm of the established fan base. We all enjoy the occasional Bond film, but there isn’t a large fanbase writing Bond fanfic. (Please don’t mention Dr. Who fanfic) (I asked nicely. please)

Established fandoms usually rule a given media (TV or Film) without necessarily making the jump to others — there are derivative works, but these are usually considered inferior or lacking in some way, and fans revert to the original medium – especially when the designated corporate parent releases a new version of the same old show an exciting ‘reboot’ of the property in it’s original medium.

Tron, with the new ‘Legacy’ release, is graduating from a level 2 direct to a level 4. (And I can’t wait for the new movie)

Level V: Massively Popular Established Fandoms

definition: A property that manages to be successful across multiple media, while also engendering massive fan participation. Please note: sometimes a level 4 is more successful, financially, than a level 5 — but while we merely consume the former, we obsess over the latter.

Poster boy: Joss Whedon

- Kevin Smith might merit a 4.5: we like his movies and forgive the rest, or we follow his comics writing career because, hey, he made those Jay & Silent Bob movies (and there’s all that comic stuff in Chasing Amy) — but there was never a synergy between the two to set his fandom on fire.

Joss exceeds level 4; not just because he’s done movies, comics, and TV – but beacuse he inspires buffistas, whedonites, and browncoats… and he can do musicals, too. All That, And Yet: Whedon isn’t Rowling, or even Lucas. I couldn’t even say authoritatively that everyone knows his name. It’s a big niche, but still a niche

Level VI: Corporate Fandoms

definition: typically founded in the 60s or 70s (or a legacy property from the 20s or 30s) it’s an iconic character we all know, and often love, but which for whatever reason never quite lives up to its full potential

Poster boy: Superman

- these get by and coast (often for years) on the strength of their history and the decades-long library. Eventually, someone at corporate remembers they own the damn thing, and they think to reintroduce it to new audiences while simultaneously tapping the established fanbase and soaking them for a few bucks.

With a little work, it’s possible to push a level 6 to a level 7 — for a time. Superman did that in the 80s, following the 1978 film (and at least two sequels; yeah there were others but after Sup3 did you really care?) and maybe building up to the ‘Death of Superman’ arc in the DC comics in what, 1992? [I forget the exact year] but Supes was a thing and then over. [Smallville was it’s own thing and is also now, largely over]

Obviously the charater and property remain, but it’s hard to keep this going at higher levels no matter how ‘popular’ the character. Eventually, you lose steam and some other property comes along to capture the imagination of the general public.

We know the official product and look forward to new instalments, but we know each chapter might in fact be the last — and if it is, well, the corpus stands as a complete work.

Level VII: Corporate Tent-Pole Fandoms

definition: It’s the big summer movie event, or the one show everyone watches on Friday night.

Poster boy: Iron Man

- In 2009, Watchmen managed to vault from a level 2 fandom all the way up to level seven, based on a movie trailer shown at San Diego CCI and the collective nerdgasm that followed on the web. Level 7 is a transitory state; either a property peaks here before falling back into relative-fan-obscurity, or this is just a stepping stone on the way up to greater things. And it’s odd: this is almost always related to a big summer movie release — one could argue that X-Files, Buffy, and the new Battlestar Galactica hit level 7 based on their respective TV shows [in the early 90s, late 90s, and aughts, respectively] so the movies aren’t the only route to level 7 status — but a big-budget Hollywood movie really helps.

The vast majority of tent-pole fans are as ephemeral as the morning fog. They gather around a major release because it’s new and shiny, but they aren’t the sort who hang around for years, waiting for the next instalment in the franchise. They will have already moved on.

Level VIII: Corporate Wet-Dream Fandoms

definition: An established series in one medium which spawns multiple spin-offs in other media, plus licensing for toys, t-shirts, crappy board games, lunch boxes, and a world of other, cheap, imported crap.

Poster boys: Pokemon, Star Wars, Star Trek, Harry Potter, and—at least for now—Batman, Spider-man, and [*sigh*] Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight books —and in a large sense, the DC and Marvel universes when taken as a whole moreso than the sum of their parts.

- these series pay the bills. It’s like winning the lottery for some companies/creators: milk it for all it’s worth, occasonally repackage it, and ride the gravy train for life. Yes, we’re looking at you, Lucas.

A solid, established level 8 will even survive poorly-conceived and badly executed extensions of the brand [once again, we’re looking at you, George] The thing is, there is enough other stuff involved that the series will continue on, and even the bad decisions and awkward story choices can be made to fit, and occasionally, be made to shine.

I don’t know if corporations employ professional turd-polishers or if turd-polishing is just another function of writers and editorial — but rather than refute anything or admit any past mistake, they’ll take the most convoluted premises or basically bad writing and somehow work it into continuity, lest the admission of a mis-step somehow devalue the whole franchise.

[and yes, I was also thinking of Marvel & DC, but mostly Marvel, when I wrote that last sentence]

Level IX: Permafandoms.

definition: At some point, your back catalog is so good that you can stop making anything new — or you can even make derivative things that detract from the original, and the fans don’t care.

poster boy: Mickey Mouse, Mario. Star Wars and Star Trek are so close, but not quite here yet. Some comic book characters/franchises might also rate a level 9, if they weren’t continuously retconned and rebooted; it’s hard to know which version we’re talking about so there isn’t a single ‘comic’ to talk about.

- no, really, what was the last good ‘Mickey’ — I’m thinking the Sorcerer’s Apprentice short in Fantasia and that was in 1940, dammit and honestly, the Disney shorts with Mick aren’t that good — so, um, Walt was the best salesman ever? Or we just give Walt & Mick a pass because it’s Disney and he was one of the first things on TV? Is that all it takes? Are we so enamored of the theme parks? …damn.

Other properties spike at level 9, but don’t stay long: Christopher Reeve’s Superman; Tim Burton’s Batman (with Jack Nicholson’s Joker); or Heath Ledger’s Joker in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight.

If you consider a single week, one news cycle, hell: a lot of properties seem to hit level 9 and all claim they’ll stay there, but it never quite works out that way. The vast majority of fans have too short an attention span.

Level X. Myth and Legend.

defintion: see appropriate academic resources.

poster boy: Homer. Virgil. Dante. Shakespeare. Dickens. Twain.

- at this point, your characters are famous world-wide. Their very names can be shorthand for a definining characteristic, or a summary of their major struggles. Everyone knows — but the copyright has expired, so everyone and anyone can propogate, re-write, remix, of otherwise use these iconic characters. This is a good thing, for humanity and the Humanities. This is a bad thing for corporations, as there are few ways to monetize it [though Disney has been appropriating and monetizing the public domain since 1938. bastards]

All companies aspire to properties that are iconic — but stop just short of the ultimate, public-domain, universally known myths, legends, and icons. They’ll make them look just like a level 10, but they don’t really want to be there because level 10 is Greek Myth (or Egyptian, or Mayan, or Norse, or Celtic, or Zoroastrian) and while they’d very much like to take on the trappings of universal myth, they won’t quite go that far as there is no money in it.


Comics fandom almost always follow the major media release, else it’s just a level 2.

Manga fandom, when we can coat-tail on an anime release, usually peaks at a level 4 (unless it’s Mario or Pokemon or Final Fantasy – which tap the gamer fan base) but is more often just a level 1 fandom. [sucks. I know. I’m right there with you guys.]

Anime fandom defaults at level 2, and seldom rises above level 3 — unless there is a cable broadcast, or a game. We love to consume Japanese content, but games and (occasionally) DVDs are the only major ways we express that love. Pokemon is an obvious outlier.

I think fans were much better about buying DVDs historically than they have been in the last 3 to 5 years. We must remember though: anime, and manga, and to an extent even mainstream games of Japanese origin (Final Fantasy included) are just a niche in the overall American market.

Obviously, something like Pokemon or whatever is on prime time cable or Saturday morning network TV & is going to get a boost. In a new digital age, where there is no ‘prime time’ or ‘cable’ or ‘network’ for that matter I’m not sure how we’ll introduce anime to new generations

The trick, if I can call it a trick, is getting even a small percentage to buy, whether they’re at a level one or level seven fandom.


  1. This would have been a really great post with images.

    I’ll keep that in mind for future posts.

    Comment by Matt Blind — 3 May 2010, 22:48 #

Commenting is closed for this article.



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