In this third installment of our exploration of the Flemish graphic novel scene, we turn towards the Franco-Belgian cultural sphere, which we have previously characterised as restrained, closed, object-oriented, and relatively disconnected from the Flemish graphic novel phenomenon. As was the case for our analysis of the USA-oriented sphere, the focus of our investigation lies here on the space carved out for a cultural object through the cultural praxes and audiences associated with it.
Refining/Defining Modes of Fan Practice: Expansion and Control (Part III)
As we have shown, the USA-oriented part of the Flemish comics culture is characterised by a social inclination, which, however, is still at quite a remove from the emancipated prosumer concept as propagated by Henry Jenkins. As the few hallmarks of participatory culture that are present in the USA-oriented sphere (performance, transmedia navigation) are largely absent in the Franco-Belgian sphere (with the possible exception of a form of mentorship), one might conjecture that particular space to be infused with even less agency than the USA-oriented one. However, such a jump in reasoning would fail to do justice to the radical difference in mode that exists between both spheres and the various ways in which the concept of agency can be filled in. As was the case in our first article, a comparison between the mechanisms, assumptions and attitudes underlying both spheres will set us on a path towards better understanding.
If we continue to focus on the praxes of the adult comics culture (as opposed to children’s comics culture), we see that the comic book casts its shadow over the Franco-Belgian sphere in a more top-down (traditional) manner, with fans being focused on the (often sequential) acquisition and collection of the object, in certain cases to the extent that the object becomes an obsession – various stereotypical depictions of comic book fans apply. Many of these depictions emphasise the element of isolation associated with this particular mode of fan practice. And yet, to make a distinction between our USA-oriented sphere and the Franco-Belgian sphere based on the distinction of the social versus the individual would be to simplify our question to an unacceptable degree. At Strip Turnhout (the festival at which we have observed the complex of cultural praxes designated here by the term “Franco-Belgian sphere”) an exchange between fans can certainly be witnessed. As is the case for many traditional comic book stores, the festival is a locus for the exchange of expertise and the sharing of experiences, either related to the collection process (Where can one find interesting sellers?) or the sharing of aesthetic or other pleasures and judgements regarding comic books (Where does one find like minds? What might these people enjoy, what other recommendations might they have so I can broaden my experience?). Always, however, reference is made to the object (or a model thereof) and meaning appears to be created in a one-on-one relationship with this object fed by the ritual of searching, inquiring, resonating, acquiring and collecting. While this focus on the thing might indeed work (as we have suggested in the introduction to this piece) as a constraining mechanism it also appears to be the great equaliser in the environment that I have witnessed. As opposed to the F.A.C.T.S. convention where the larger cultural assumptions connected with a popular mass media form such as the comic book as well as the consumerist overlay of the cultural practices in question (queuing up for an expensive autograph) streamline the event and in a sense collar its attendees, the Strip Turnhout festival mainly features buyers and sellers that are fans first and foremost. The (not-for-profit) festival lacks (escapes) the top-down hierarchy typical of the economic anchoring of the F.A.C.T.S. convention.
A number of consequences follow from these observations. With regard to the difference between (Flemish) social and material fans we can now posit that the distinction we have previously made points towards a difference in the nature of the relationship between fan and object more than to a disavowal of either the social or material/object aspect of comics culture altogether. We could say that both the Cosplayer at F.A.C.T.S. and the Hergé fan who receives tips from another fan about a rare item are attempting to expand their experience of something they enjoy. And both use social cultural practices in order to achieve that expansion. It does not seem like the difference between the spheres is a simple matter of degree, such as would be the case if one were to posit that the social element is more prominent or more important for the USA-sphere and the object is primordial in the Franco-Belgian sphere. Neither does it seem correct to assert that while the object lies at the basis of the cultural praxes witnessed in the USA-sphere, it is dissolved in the social expansion typical of that sphere or that the social expansion present in the Franco-Belgian sphere is itself obliterated in moving single-mindedly towards the goal of the object. Rather, I would maintain that the USA-sphere fan praxes bring out and share what is in the object and in doing so are constrained by the contextual nature of the object, while Franco-Belgian practices are bound to take in what is shared about the object in terms of what the object is. The principle of selection that seems to be implied in the latter attitude is then a different way of conceiving of the agency which eludes the USA-sphere fans (an effective agency in their case). Considering the prevalence of obsessive ritual over grounded selection at the Strip Turnhout festival it would be a stretch to claim that the fans in this sphere attain a form of agency either, however.
In the next and final episode to this series we will turn to the question of the graphic novel sphere (how does this space function with regard to agency?) and attempt to wrap up some loose ends. A closer examination of the notion of the fan will be invaluable in this context.
Charlotte Pylyser is a PhD student at the Catholic University of Leuven. She operates from a literary studies and cultural studies background and her research concerns the Flemish graphic novel in particular and issues of culture and context with regard to comics in general.
She sits on the editorial board of Image [&] Narrative.