Organized Feasts for the Eyes and Mind: An evaluation of historical fandoms and fan consumption of multimedia

Organized Feasts for the Eyes and Mind:

An evaluation of historical fandoms and fan consumption of multimedia

 
By Harry Underwood
HUMN-3460
Honors Final Project
December 8, 2010

Introduction

The Fursuit Parade at Anthrocon 2009 in Pittsburgh, PA. Photo by Karl "Xydexx Squeakypony" Jorgensen.

The Fursuit Parade at Anthrocon 2009 in Pittsburgh, PA. Photo by Karl “Xydexx Squeakypony” Jorgensen.

The furry fandom is a modern phenomenon with long historic roots and sources of reference. Having been consolidated by 1989 with the launch of the first furry convention, it originated from the speculative fiction fandom subculture that had exponentially grown in geographic representation since 1969. However, instead of a focus upon literary inspirations or cross-media adaptations thereof, the furry fandom has been primarily driven by recognition of a long-running cultural appeal for graphical representations of the anthropomorphic, semi-animal beings that populated a wide variety of artistic depictions from the earliest artistic works created by Homo sapiens.

A Doctor Who fan in a Fourth Doctor costume, at the Gallifrey One 2006 convention in Los Angeles. Photo by Josiah Rowe.

A Doctor Who fan in a Fourth Doctor costume, at the Gallifrey One 2006 convention in Los Angeles. Photo by Josiah Rowe.

Differences and similarities in origin, focus and treatment have influenced the characteristics of both fandom subcultures, and re-evaluation or appropriation of past and present corporately-distributed cultural works by fandom subcultures in general have been widely discussed and debated among scholars and experts as pertaining to legal, political and economic ramifications. They have also been perceived by various scholars as being part of modern-day “folk” subcultures by way of adapting and deriving cultural works to non-canonical real-life situations or experiences.  Since the 1970s, media fandoms have largely constituted a large minority, if not a majority, of the speculative fiction fandom demographic, and have come to play an increasingly-important role in the interaction between fandom and corporate distribution outlet. 

 
            Three examples of the developing nature of fandom subculture and influence are found in the furryspeculative (science fiction, horror fiction, fantasy fiction, etc., also known as “SF”) and media fandoms. All three symbolize specific but gradual stages in the 20th century development of modern fandom, ranging from the 1930s to the present day. All fandoms were created to assemble those who found the works of their favorite genres to be both truly attractive and genuinely misunderstood by those who simply didn’t “get” the appeal of the work, and they ended up becoming hotbeds of cultural appropriation and derivation for the majority of their history, often becoming the basis for fans to later become artisans in their own right. However, they each focused on specific features, characteristics or contexts of media works which were specific to each fandom’s main concern, and magnified such features to life-sized, life-relevant proportions, changing the Western world’s sense of popular fiction for the foreseeable future.

SF and Media fandom

Star Trek anti-cancellation protest in front of KNBC 4 Los Angeles in 1968. Photo by Harry Chase, Los Angeles Times.

Star Trek anti-cancellation protest in front of KNBC 4 Los Angeles in 1968. Photo by Harry Chase, Los Angeles Times, used under fair use.

1969 was the year when Star Trek was finally cancelled after three seasons of low ratings on NBC. But it was also the year that dedicated science fiction fans had realized the importance of their viewership in the era of television, due to the fan campaign which kept the series on the air for one more season. Thus, the Star Trek fan groups around the US began to help in organizing various science fiction conventions, with a growth in “Trekkie” attendees and various personnel from the series being in high demand at these conventions. This was the start of an unprecedented period in fandom history, with fans deriving from a larger number of media outlets and franchises than ever before. This trend would continue into the 1980s, buoyed by the impact of 1977’s Star Wars.Throughout the history of SF fandom, the seeming “lifeblood” of the culture has been the literary publication industries, as writers for science fiction or superhero works were the usual guests and vendors at the few SF conventions which existed between 1936-1969, and many future writers, such as Isaac Asimov, often got their start as fandom organizers. Costumes based upon franchise characters (film, comic book/novel/short story, TV) were worn by regular attendees at such conventions from the first SF conventions in the 1930s onward (Flynn).

The growth of science fiction conventions from 1969 onward, however, is most likely due to the growth of another meta-fandom: the media fandom. As Star Trek’s cancellation had served as a catalyst for fascinated viewers in the United States and elsewhere to court the cast and crew of the series in anticipation of news on upcoming releases and events in the Star Trek canon, the science fiction fandom was infused with far larger numbers of convention attendees than in the last 40 years of science fiction history. Cast and crew of television serials were invited to a geographically- and demographically-growing circuit of conventions, and convention goers dressed up in television and film character costumes to celebrate the appeal of the series. This signified a growing split in focus between the fans of the older literarily-oriented concept-driven science fiction (which had predominately constituted the bulk of the fandom until the 1970s) and fans of visual character-driven science fiction. This spilled over into the establishment of the first franchise-specific media fandom conventions in the 1970s for fans of Star Trek, Doctor Who, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., and other franchises.

 

George Takei, who played Hikaru Sulu in Star Trek: The Original Series, with fans in full costume.

George Takei, who played Hikaru Sulu in Star Trek: The Original Series, with fans in full costume.

This also signified the beginning of the corporate interaction to fandom conventions, whereby the distributors of franchises interfaced with the fandoms through the cast and crew who manned franchise booths and panels for autographs and memorabilia. However, as shown with the litigation exercises of George Lucas concerning both fan tribute and commercial appropriation from the watershed Star Wars film series, corporations began to fire the first salvos in the war on infringement of intellectual property, one which notably involved fans who wrote non-canon depictions of Star Wars characters, often in pornographic situations (this phenomenon was not new, as the first fan-fictitious work in fandom history was published in 1967 in the fanzine Spockanalia, and the first homoerotic fanfic to depict the two leading characters of Star Trek in a close relationship was published in 1974, leading to what became known as “Kirk/Spock”). This campaign was further magnified by the rise in popularity of home recording cartridges after 1977, which enabled budding videographers to film their own fan tributes to the franchise for convention exhibition.

The 1980s saw further hints toward diversification that would be entrenched in the 1990s. Roleplaying became a serious pursuit – he RP and video game fan communities partly drew from already-existing wargaming conventions as well as SF – , Japanese animation was increasingly shown to be a highly-developed industry showcasing a wide range of topic and emotion that was sorely lacking in the West, and funny animals, those characters of semi-animal semi-human constitution who were exhibited in animated works throughout the entire history of animation, were extended to become more serious and diverse in emotion and topic than ever previously. All three emerged from the general speculative fiction fandom community with their own conventions and their own fandom subcultures.

Furry fandom

Mark Merlino and Rod O'Riley, co-founders of ConFurence. Photo by RainRat.

Mark Merlino and Rod O’Riley, co-founders of ConFurence. Photo by RainRat.

The funny animal fandom, in its transition into the furry fandom, showed several distinctive features. Prior to the introduction of funny animals into serious works of speculative fiction, funny animals were primarily used as a stock trope in various, usually humorous works of fiction for television, film and printed works.

Through the usage of original anthropomorphic characters in serious works of speculative fiction and romance fiction, the humorous or light-hearted stereotype of anthropomorphic characters in fiction was forced to share room with topically and emotionally diverse subject matter. However, at the same time, this newer revision of the anthropomorphic character was not welcomed or expressly promulgated by most multimedia vendors in their own lagging offerings of anthropomorphic characters in film, television and comic books. Thus, the primary couriers of the serious anthropomorphic characters were independent, often amateur graphic artists and writers who self-published or placed their works in the fledgling amateur press associations (APAs) and fanzines of the late 1970s and 1980s (Merlino); unlike the general SF fandom, the products of this movement were far from SF’s major franchise characters (save for rare occasions, when Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, originally independently-published, became one of the rare serious anthropomorphic titles to become self-sustaining for its artists), and artists within what became the furry fandom generally drew their own or others’ original characters.

Lucky Coyote acting as concierge at Anthrocon 2006, Philadelphia. Photo by GreenReaper.

“Lucky Coyote” acting as concierge at Anthrocon 2006, Philadelphia. Photo by GreenReaper.

This trend toward focusing upon original characters of one’s own making or the rendering of others within the fandom rather than the characters of major practice of costuming (or “fursuiting”), a practice which increased with the advent of the first furry parties in Southern California in 1985-1986 (themselves initially resulting from overlap between the APA groups’ gatherings and SoCal’s animation-focused Cartoon/Fantasy Organization). Having its roots in the common SF fandom practice of wearing costumes based upon specific characters from popular franchises, fursuiting mostly diverged from the SF tradition by not only focusing upon original characters of one’s own making but also creating a cottage industry of fursuit manufacturing within the fandom that is, to this day, rivaled in focus by the larger costume industry which creates franchise-based outfits for fans.

Following the advent of the first furry convention, ConFurence, in 1989, the rise in usage of the Internet was reflected in the fandom by the establishment of FurryMUCK in 1990 and The Lion King Fan-Art Archive in 1996, both of which served as persistent routes of furry fandom information and media distribution. The growing number of furry properties on the Internet rapidly replaced the importance of the BBSes (which had all but dissipated from general usage in the world by the mid-1990s), APAs and fanzines, and more conventions and “furmeets” were established every year afterward around the world.

Comparison

 

Furries vs. Klingons II. Atlanta Georgia. 2008. Poster by USS Republic NCC-1371.

Furries vs. Klingons II. Atlanta Georgia. 2008. Poster by USS Republic NCC-1371.

Due to their shared roots, furry and speculative fiction fandoms share many outstanding qualities. 

            For instance, a strong identification with alternate reality pervades both fandoms. Masquerades using the characters with whom the wearers most identify are a pillar of the fandom, and have been since the first SF conventions in late 1930s Philadelphia. 

            The furry fandom, a subset of which is known as the transformation fiction fandom, has received a large number of writers who are or were previously science fiction fans. This has allowed for a cross-pollination of concepts and ideas into the literary aspects of the furry fandom.
            Social consciousness or progression has often played a role in the lives of many acolytes of both traditions, evidenced by charitable donations of proceeds from many conventions to initiatives such as ecological/animal welfare groups, human health and social services, etc. Social consciousness often drove authors in the SF tradition to explore the possibilities of human advancement in an industrialized or utopian world order, while many furry fans often entertained the fantasy of physical shapeshifting in both graphical and literary formats of publication.

Congressional events in both fandoms were historically not catered towards by large corporations for most of their early histories, and were initially driven by personally-shared interest in publications by major vendors of fiction or fiction-oriented media at the time. In fact, fandom communities are largely a “labor of love” for their organizers and participants, being inherently driven by fan appropriation and celebration of the impact of relevant media to their own self-perceptions and worldviews.

Contrast

An example of a "fursona reference sheet", used to artistically describe the personal alter-ego or other character of the furry fan. This reference sheet depicts Demitri "Diti" Torterat's penguin fursona as drawn by Luna Tsukario.

An example of a “fursona reference sheet”, used to artistically describe the personal alter-ego or other character of the furry fan. This reference sheet depicts Demitri “Diti” Torterat‘s penguin fursona as drawn by Luna Tsukario.

Furry fandom is oriented differently than speculative fiction fandom or media fandom:

  • Unlike the SF fandom, which largely drew from literary sources and historically was driven by genre writers, the furry fandom largely derived from graphic expressions in both still and animated form.
  • Furry fandom is largely concerned with body phenotypes and graphic depictions thereof, while SF fandom is largely concerned with the settings in which the fiction takes place and the associated concepts which are employed. Media fandom, by contrast to both, is more enamored of character development and relationships.
  • Furries adopt fursonas, or furry alter-egos, which usually exist outside of franchises (save for rare occasions when the depiction of the fursona is derived in style from another franchise which was not originally marketed as “furry”).
  • Furry fandom is external to genre restrictions and furry fiction can employ any genre or setting under the sun, including SF.
  • Furries are more likely to integrate or interpret their fursonas as expressions of their inner selves, or aspects thereof. SF fans are more likely to embrace the character of whose visage they may masquerade for the ideals and role which are most associated with the character in the franchise.

Corporations or large studios are largely a non-presence within the furry fandom:

  • The SF fandom has largely been focused upon corporately-funded franchises since the 1970s due to the rise in media fan attendance at the largest conventions. In contrast, furries were largely drawn to franchises’ graphic anthropomorphic media before happening upon the Internet’s furry artwork, which is usually not fan derivations of franchise characters.
  • Corporations have largely remained ignorant of the furry fandom, and artists within the employ of large media companies usually only come to furry conventions at their own expence, usually in retirement (in addition, furries are not a target market or audience in the 2010s by any means for major corporate disseminators of fiction). In contrast, SF fandom draws top-dollar guests such as franchise writers, artists, actors, directors and series creators, and corporations often court fan gatherings for advance teasers.
  • It is rare to see two or more fursuits of the same character, while it is common for multiple cosplayers to depict the same character or franchise at SF, media and anime conventions.
  • SF fans have historically achieved greater ascendancy since the 1960s and 1970s, as fans who happened to be writers (Asimov, for example) were hired to write for major franchises or their works were adapted to film, television, etc. Furries have not yet achieved anywhere near that ascendancy within media establishments at this point.

Fandom relations with corporations

 

Cast and crew members of Stargate Atlantis at San Diego Comic-Con International 2008 panel discussion. Photo by Heath White.

Cast and crew members of Stargate Atlantis at San Diego Comic-Con International 2008 panel discussion. Photo by Heath White.

The relationship between the furry fandom, media franchises and the corporate media outlets which maintain those franchises is awkward and fraught with conflicting understandings. While the furry fandom was initially brought together by graphic artists who were inspired by corporate media franchises of graphical depictions of anthropomorphic characters (and archives of fan works inspired by the franchises remain a so-called “gateway” to the fandom on the Internet), the furry fandom has had a distantly-receptive, one-way relationship with corporate media franchises which has not been reciprocated with similarly-positive feedback.

Any reference by a “non-furry” corporately-owned media outlet to anthropomorphic characters is welcomed and appropriated by the furry fandom’s members, and any reference to the furry fandom in particular is readily documented and reviewed by self-described furries. However, because of the tendency for furries to adopt fursonas, the depiction of fursonas or original characters by various artists tends to outweigh the number of specific homages or appropriations of corporately-owned characters on large galleries such as Fur Affinity.

At the same time, corporations which hold the licenses to the media franchises have responded variably to the furry fandom. Even in 2010, the furry fandom is a new and strange development for many employees of the corporations, and a heavy public stigma which is associated with the fandom due to many past corporate media depictions of furries and furry events (including the 2003 CSI: Crime Science Investigation episode “Fur and Loathing”) may deter corporations from expressly appealing to this niche for the foreseeable future.

In comparison, the media fandom that spilled out of the science fiction fandom after 1969 and inherited most of its customs has gradually cultivated a closer relationship with corporations that sees conventions being broadcast on cable television, endorsed by media franchise owners, cast and crew visiting as panelists and booth operators, etc. Corporations and individual rights holders have varied in their stances on fan derivations of their works in recent years, with many allowing for fan fiction and others taking a somewhat hostile stance against it; those who have warmed to fan fiction adaptations and derivations include some individuals who started their writing careers in the fanfiction scene. This is a far cry from the 1980s, when most copyright owners took hostile, litigious stances against the fanfiction phenomena for the sake of keeping a strong hold on the intellectual property or family-friendliness of their series or franchises.

Conclusion

 

Forrest J. Ackerman in a futuristic costume at Worldcon 1939, perhaps the first costume in fandom history, New York City. Photo c/o Robert Madle/Fanac History Project.

Forrest J. Ackerman in a futuristic costume at Worldcon 1939, perhaps the first costume in fandom history, New York City. Photo c/o Robert Madle/Fanac History Project.

What can certainly be ascertained is that the furry fandom was one of many types of fandom subcultures which developed in the 20th century, one which was influenced by other fandoms and originating from the science fiction fandom. What can also be ascertained is that each fandom – genre-centric, chararacter/relationship-centric, species-centric, origin-centric – is an example of individuals who discovered that there were other people in the world or in their own local proximities who were just as interested in sifting the sensually-pleasing, the intellectually-intensive, the culturally-relevant or other personally-”important” elements from the mass media works of present and past, and celebrating them and their own adaptations.

They are spurred onward by actualities and possibilities which result from such elements and adaptations, and they are far from being immune to corporate co-option or interaction, but they readily exhibit examples of popular or “folk” appropriation of original source material (Jenkins). The canon material is used as a source of “scripting” which details expectations, behaviors and descriptions of real-life situations, with at least a few attempts at establishing new religious movements as outgrowths of fandom communities.

The fandom phenomenon that was first cultivated from the science fiction literary societies of the 1920s and 1930s was transformed by television and its adaptation of text into moving visuals, with media fandom gradually taking precedence in fandom subcultural activities from the 1970s onward. This option by so many to co-opt and derive cultural works from film and television has indelibly redefined the developed world’s perception of popular fiction. It has also influenced the licensing of fictional characters or settings for commercial promotions, as fans will usually be among the first to express vocal disappointment in any corporate deviation from the letter or spirit of the canon material. It is not yet a system of creative checks and balances, but fans of media franchises and the owners of distribution rights over such franchises do often communicate, coalesce or come into open conflict with each other on a frequent basis.

Fandom subcultures will continue to diverge into newer methods of folk interpretation and appropriation of canon for the foreseeable future. The furry fandom, which is young in comparison to the media and literary speculative fiction fandoms, may yet gain economic ascendancy whereby participants in the fandom may be later employed in the larger animation or video game studios for production purposes, or it may develop in an altogether-different manner than the other two fandoms, but it does symbolize a further, somewhat divergent extreme in how those of us who are primarily consumers of fiction media are often motivated to appropriate from past trends or established canon to provide sensory, intellectual or cultural gain.

Works cited

Patten, Fred. “A Chronology of Furry Fandom.” Yarf! 1996. Web. 8 Dec. 2010.

 

Jenkins, Henry. “The Poachers and the Stormtroopers: Cultural Convergence in the Digital Age”. Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 27 July 2010. Web. 8 Dec. 2010.

 

Flynn, John L. “Costume Fandom: All Dressed Up with Some Place to Go!” Towson University. 1986-2001. Web.

 

Chase, Harry. “Star Trek Cancellation Protest.” Los Angeles Times. 8 Jan. 1968. Web. 8 Dec. 2010.

 

USS Republic NCC-1371. Web. 8 Dec. 2010.

 

Burka, Lauren P. “The MUDline.” The MUDdex. 1995. Web. 8 Dec. 2010.

 

Darlington, Steve. “A History of Role-playing.” Places to Go, People to Be. Web. 8 Dec. 2010.

 

“The Force Is With…Everyone”. Beliefnet. 2002. Web.

 

Merlino, Mark. “Re: A few questions for fandom research.” Email to the author. 2 Dec. 2010.

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