The Tribes of Fans:

How Tribalism is Pulling Comics in the Wrong Direction

We have reached an interesting (and exciting) point in comics history.  For the first time in, well, ever, women are almost neck in neck for comic book readership.  This year there was even market research done showing 46.67% of comic book fans are female.  Now, most things not being easy, this transition has been fraught with controversies and hyperbole.

There has been a lot said against the new, changing readership.  Death/rape threats made against women who comment on comic book covers. Or a new, black Spider-man for the Ultimate line of Marvel Comics, there is a lot to talk on this new readership.  Women and people of color are increasing as the number of readers increase.  It is a safe bet that comics will start to reflect these new, burgeoning readers – as it should. What is the subtext here in the anger against new readers?  Is it guys wishing women and people of color were not reading comics/”ruining” their party?  After all, history shows that comics have by and large been salvation for the nerdy, white male.

This was our art form that we ran to when we got picked on at school or work.  When the world was mean to us for whatever reason, comic books were there to help.  But that is the tricky part, right?  That word “ours”.

What gives any of us a right to bear ownership for a medium in which we only own the product and not the rights?  Tribalism does. I can feel a few of you pull away at that word.  Tribalism is the idea that we are steadfast in loyalty to certain ideas and things.  In this case, it’s the idea that comics are for us.  Again that idea of ownership. The idea that we banded together around a medium and have put so much of ourselves into comics, that it must in fact belong to us.  But how does something become owned in America?  We have to look to property rights to understand better.

The American idea of property and property valuation comes from the philosopher John Locke.  Not the guy from Lost, though that would make for a different type of article.

In his Second Treatise on Civil Government, section 5, Locke comments that:

“Sec. 28. He that is nourished by the acorns he picked up under an oak, or the apples he gathered from the trees in the wood, has certainly appropriated them to himself. No body can deny but the nourishment is his. I ask then, when did they begin to be his? when he digested? or when he eat? or when he boiled? or when he brought them home? or when he picked them up? and it is plain, if the first gathering made them not his, nothing else could. That labour put a distinction between them and common: that added something to them more than nature, the common mother of all, had done; and so they became his private right.” (link above)

Now, while this is dry to read, what Locke is saying is we make things ours by the work we put in – if someone else hasn’t already done so.  We can’t claim ownership of what we did not make or put effort into.  Even if we own an original work of art, we only own it as a product, and not the result of our labor.  This doesn’t diminish buying products, but it does put them into a more honest light.  Despite what we may like to believe, the hard truth is we don’t own comics.  So, where did this confusion of ownership come from?

“I’m really getting annoyed by all these women studies majors trying to inject their Ideologies into comic book, and video game culture. Yes sexual harassment, and sexism do exist, but It’s so fucking ridiculous how much these people want comic books, and video games to be about there close minded ideologies, and not about video games, and comic books.” (taken from here)

Besides the blatant lack of logic in the quote above, it is endemic of fanboy rage today.  It’s not us that are close-minded, it’s all you who are trying to push your “close minded ideaologies(sic)”. It is so easy to interpret this as: “Oh sure you can all be equal, and fight for it too, just do it in someone else’s sandbox.”  It’s hard to believe people don’t see this before posting.  It’s closing a door in a whole people’s face. It creates an atmosphere that is exclusive, rather than inclusive.  Because this strong loyalty towards ‘our’ comics is a way to suffocate ourselves, and this beloved medium.  Tribalism in any form reduces people to cultural cells, leaving people hungry with nothing left to eat but our own bullshit

Honestly this is tame compared to what I could have chose...

Most comics out are stuck in a rut of pointless violence and fraudulent sexuality.  There are not a ton of new voices helping to open comics beyond the same old same old.  This could also be because that is what we know, we have been reading it for so long.  But it’s not realistic of those reading it.  It portrays a false image to kids as well.  The female form and sexuality on display is not real and just another false display of the white male power fantasy. It shares some creepy simularities with porn.  The lifeless faces in poses to convey sexuality without meaning it.  If you don’t believe me, please go to any free porn site and listen to how the men talk to their ‘co-stars’ – it’s fucked up.  Our own tropes become these tautologies that we spin around in forever it feels. How does one break out when trapped in a rigid box?  By thinking outside the box you can find the weakness in it. Escape, and then make an even better box to trap the poor fool who trapped you in the original box.
In all seriousness, we should invite anyone into our medium because it can make comics better.  This is the least we can do as a community.  I don’t expect us to all get a long.  But, this is another way we can help.  It can give a voice to the voiceless, a medium to connect with others in similar situations.  It’s so we get more Watchmen and less DCNu Teen Titans.  We should strive for excellence and not settle for mediocrity in the medium we all love.  But, perhaps I am just trying to spoil your fun, you say.  I am being over dramatic about a non-issue.  This is all just about fun, right?  Well, it’s also about representation of ourselves.

What about the white guy that just loves Spider-Woman.  I mean loves her and just wants to see some tits and ass.  What is so bad about that?  Well, if we were talking a small section of the comics world, this argument would be better.  But the fact is, this is a lot of comics covers.  It’s not just Spider-Woman striking some impossible position.  It’s women objectified in such a way that devalues them as human beings.  Devaluation in any way never feels good.  The truth is women are reading comics and are also human beings – I know this may be shocking to some, it was to me.  So during the Miles Manara cover fiasco, many men’s argument for Miles’s heart-butt cover was “well, have you seen a comics cover before.”  But this is the crux of it all, isn’t?

Asses in the air, waists and necks turned beyond all anatomical realities – this is the norm. Why worry about innovation when I can have the comforting ass-heart of Spider-woman strike a pose and stare dead eyed back at me?  Why ask Marvel to focus on stories when I can have the white-washed super-heroes we have had for for the past 50 years. Though it’s changing at Marvel – but that stands to see if it extends beyond this year or next.  Ask yourself this, are you currently watching or reading a series well over 40+ years old?  The answer is most likely yes, you are.  After all Avengers X-Men are both 51 years old and Batman is a salty 75 years old.  New series do take some market shares. We are by and large reading older, more historically entrenched properties.

These dudes are really really old.

The fact is there are people in fandom watching things that are older.  And also that fandom will continue to recapitulate the same things we like over and over again.  Culture tends toward dilution or homogeneity without injecting any new ideas/things into the mix.  Neither of which is a great thing for comic books.  The fact is incest produces inferior offspring on a genetic level, the same is true of pop culture.  Pop culture by its definition is something that sells.  It’s popular.  Now, if something sells, you don’t tend to change the formula – unless you attempting to capture market shares.  Why introduce something new that is a variable when you have the tried and true to sell.  We “know what works” so to speak.

The truth, and this will be a hard one for most of us, is that the hardcore fanboy isn’t great for business.  A customer that wants your product only to himself, is not a customer that will share your product.  Some will shout about how I am stereotyping fanboys here. Keep in mind we are talking about a medium that reduces people of color to stereotypes.  A medium that believes women should have a zero waist and 34 DDD tits, so your cry of foul play doesn’t exactly stand up.  If this were a medium of total inclusivity, these things would not happen.  Also the white male has been in all positions of power for longer than any of us can even remember.  This unassailable fact makes that kind of argument invalid.  That isn’t to reduce any of us white males, but it does allow the playing field to open to everyone.  But the fanboys don’t tend towards experimentation and progress.  We tend to like what we like and move within those circles.  Once again the tribalism of it all on display.  The guy buying Batman and Avengers every week is crossing company lines.  But he is still in the ‘super-hero’ comics section.

This isn’t to say we all shouldn’t read what we like or we have to go buy weird comics.  Superheroes are not the only protagonists in the comics market.  We shouldn’t condemn anyone for going outside our shared tastes.  But we do…and viciously at times, and feckless doing it.

The controversy over spider-butt this year caused a few conversations online.  More so after a few creators reacted on twitter to it .  Dan Slott and Jill Pantozzi had a twitter conversation that ended quite weird.  After Slott was emphatic that there was no controversy he further tried to deflate it and made jokes like “What’s next?  You’ll get offended that water is wet?”  But, this type of dismissal isn’t new to Marvel.

In August, after the above exchange, Tom Brevoort got involved.  He responded via his Tumblr with “I think that the people who are upset about that cover have a point, at least in how the image relates to them,” Ah, see, even Tom Brevoort is saying we are right…wait a second.  We are only right in how the image “relates” to us.  It’s not the image that is wrong or up for criticism, it’s us, the unwashed masses, clamoring for justice that are wrong.  How dare us “relate” to the image.  But, this allows the tribe to stay together and the foundations not be shook to hard.  It says, yes we hear you, but understand that your perspective is yours, just like ours is, well, ours.  So, this evens the playing field, right?

Later in the same post, Brevoort says: “”By that same token, Milo Manara has been working as a cartoonist since 1969, and what he does hasn’t materially changed in all that time. So when we say ‘Manara cover,’ his body of work indicates what sort of thing he’s going to do.”  Once again, tribalism on display.  It’s not that Milo Manara does graphic sexual comics. After all his art is gorgeous.  The man is a talent for sure.  It’s that you, Marvel comics, choose him to do a cover for a more female targeted book.  But, once again, we see it’s not the readers they worry about.  It’s the bottom line.  The simple truth here is that creators, editors, and us readers are angry that the same ol’ same ol’ isn’t acceptable.

Don't let this amazing comic be a singularity.

I hate to break it to everyone, but the truth is that comics are growing.  The readership, while not as high as the 90’s, is still quite damn large.  Enough to sustain creators on for a bit (though even that is getting rougher).  But, what we are calling for is the best books companies can produce at the least expense to any reader.  And it doesn’t have to be because you are a feminist.  It can just be about the best books for our hard earned money.  I mean, after all, it’s a capitalist society.  Are you getting the most bang for your buck?  You should be, as a consumer, it’s your prime directive.  Letting everyone have a voice doesn’t mean yours is less, it just means more variety for what we spend, and that isn’t so bad, right?

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Kevin Thurman is a writer based in Chicago. He blogs about comics, life, and music at

See more, including free online content, on .

Also by Kevin Thurman:

Warren Ellis: The Captured Ghosts Interviews


Voyage in Noise: Warren Ellis and the Demise of Western Civilization


Shot in the Face: A Savage Journey to the Heart of Transmetropolitan


The Devil is in the Details: Examining Matt Murdock and Daredevil


a feature-length documentary film on celebrated comics writer Warren Ellis

creative consultant

Keeping the World Strange: A Planetary Guide



  1. Why do we feel that there’s something wrong with those who disagree with us? Do we really believe we’re so logical?

    Both sides are in this dance for years, now. And for what? Iron Man was black 30 years ago! And I don’t remember it being controversial (but I may be wrong). Diversity is there.

    Isn’t it time for us to go a little deeper? I’m kind of tired of seeing covers or carefully chosen panels. To have a real discussion on minorities in mainstream superhero comics, we have to analyze the stories. Whole runs. Periods, even. We have to discuss how they’re presented in context. And how they used to be presented. It is time to add something new to the debate, other than just the most recent cover, butt shot or race swap.

    (Not saying I didn’t like your text, Kevin. I did.)

  2. First off, sorry if the images are too big everyone. I’ve been fighting with it and still they are huge. Anyway.

    Mario, the topic of the essay is that the landscape is changing for comics, but not fast enough to meet the growing new readers. We do need to examine whole stories and everything. I agree. This wasn’t that essay though. For this piece I simply wanted to point out the quandary of ownership by fans – and the lack thereof. I would implore you to do that series, taking apart storylines and series to show the racial/sexiest subtext in them. Hell, I want everyone to do that. But, not to attack, but as feedback. And like all opinions it is up to them if they want to listen to the feedback or not. I certainly hope they will or comics might be in more trouble than we thought.

    • Sorry, Kevin. I know what you meant, it was just that my mind wandered. Which is cool, it did wander because I liked your text. And I’m so using “tribalists” from now on to describe fanboys.

      My comment was less directed at your editorial and more to the whole debate, which seems driven mainly by the news. Sometimes I have the impression that people are attacking or defending comics that they’re not even reading, and comparing them to past comics they don’t remember. It is important to analyze how a female character looks on a cover, of course, but that’s only part of the message. The other part is what she does in 20 pages, month after month.

      Not your editorial, I know. Sorry.

  3. Genuine question: With an all-female X-Men and the forthcoming all-woman A-Force title forthcoming, are these examples of tribalism themselves or a response to it? Following on Mario’s comment above, how would we negotiate such titles being, let’s say, well written but featuring stereotypical, over-inflated Barbie doll art?

    I don’t mean to negate your argument through complication. Truly, I want to better conceptualize what these endeavors at Marvel (along with the all-black Mighty Avengers) are responding to. Are they riding the trend in a PC way or bucking it?

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