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The Wednesday Waffle - Issue Two: Fandoms

Whether it's actors being hounded off social media because some folks don't like that they've been given a role in a movie or TV show, or female creators getting harassed online for daring to be working in comics at all, "Fandom" has developed something of a toxic reputation. But it isn't always like that.

Let me give you an example. As regular customers will know, I'm very old. Which means I remember a time when you couldn't just go online and meet other people who were into the same things you were into. We didn't even have email, let alone websites and stuff.

So instead we had fanzines. In my late teens and early twenties I subscribed to a couple of these hand produced fan magazines, but by far the most important to me was Dream Lovers, a fanzine for readers of Neil Gaiman's Sandman - something I've been thinking about since the recent release of Sandman Universe.

If you're unfamiliar with Neil Gaiman's masterpiece, you should probably check it out, but really all you need to know is that it was one of the greatest comics series of the nineties, much beloved by slightly pretentious goths across the English speaking world*.

Dream Lovers began with a letter on the Sandman letters page. A guy wrote in with a story about how much the world of The Dreaming meant to him, and invited other fans to get in touch. I did. So did a bunch of other like minded people from around the world. For a year or two we made new friends, went on scavenger hunts, shared stories, thoughts and articles - it was a lot like a Facebook group, but on paper.

Eventually the whole thing ran out of steam. The guy that set the group up found that it had grown to a size that was unmanageable and he wrapped it all up. But the effect the members of the group had on each other was profound - nearly a quarter of a century later I'm still in touch with a few people I met back then. I know of at least one couple who met and married through the pages of this remarkable fanzine.

As I said, these days it would be a Facebook page, but somehow - in much the same way that making somebody a mix tape is soooo much cooler than sharing a playlist on Spotify - there was something special about getting those airmail packages through the door loaded with the latest issue of the fanzine and whatever cool goodies the group's founder chose to share that looking at comments on a screen in no way replicates.

But the internet did come along, and fandoms would never be the same again. My first taste was in 1999, when I got my first PC and regular access to the internet for the very first time. This was a heady time for the internet. Everything was much slower back then - dial-up was still a thing and you couldn't use your house phone and the internet at the same time**.

Obviously the first thing I did was seek out things to do with comics, and one of the first things I found was the "Yahoo Group" for Comics International, which was then the publication of record for the UK comics scene.

It's hard to explain Yahoo Groups now. Basically in those pre-social media days they were email based networks which allowed you to send messages to everyone in the group.

It was a vibrant little community, and much more interactive than the old fanzines. Some of that old fanzine focus on a particular thing began to disappear as mass conversations began to develop and in-jokes, cliques, feuds and rivalries began to develop.

But while there were some bust-ups between members, the whole thing remained, on the whole, positive and civilised. Small press creators began to promote their work (under the agreed heading of "Blatant Self Promotion" or "BSP") and friendships were formed that survive to this day - it was there that I first met Antony "Atomic Blonde" Johnston, for example.

Elsewhere on the web, the Warren Ellis Forum, or WEF was becoming a place where many of the creators you know and love today were meeting up, sharing ideas and making contacts. The place positively pulsated with positive energy.

The internet has changed a little since then. The arrival of social networks - My Space, then Live Journal, Facebook, and Twitter, alongside the rise of more affordable, powerful and user friendly hardware (that first PC I bought in 1999? It had a 12Gb hard drive. 12Gb. I carry three times that in my pocket these days - with high speed wireless internet access to boot...) made it possible for everyone to join the party.

Which is good.

And terrible.

Because some of those people aren't very nice, and they're the ones who shout the loudest.

But - and this cannot be overstated - the trolls, gamer-gaters, comics-gaters and haters are not the majority, they are merely a loud and annoying aberration.

Besides, while online platforms are the easiest way to connect with our fandoms on a day to day basis, they aren't the only - or even the best - way to do so. Nothing compares to meeting up with people in person and celebrating a shared love of comics, or Star Wars, or Harry Potter, or whatever.

For me, one of the highlights of last year was the Can't Stop The Serenity charity screening of Joss Wheadon's Serenity that we co-hosted with The Geek Pub Quiz at Harrogate's Everyman Cinema. For on glorious afternoon we got to meet fans of the TV show Firefly and its spin off movie Serenity - our fellow Browncoats and indulge our passion for the sadly defunct SciFi Western.

Money was raised, friendships were kindled, people came from far and wide. There were costumes, there were games. It was awesome and we wish we were doing it again this year***. It was a brilliant and positive experience for all concerned.

Then there's the forthcoming Thought Bubble convention in Leeds at the end of September. Thousands of people, all converging on Leeds City Centre for a weekend just to celebrate their shared love of comics - and while in our view it's the best, Thought Bubble is only one of hundreds of conventions held across the UK every year where people can go to meet up, cosplay, buy cool stuff and generally celebrate the gloriousness of being a fan.

So yes. "Toxic Fandom" is a thing. But compared to the sheer, joyous brilliance of what I like to call "actual fandom" it is a weak and insignificant thing.

Remember. We're all geeks here.

*Don't @ me. I was one of those slightly pretentious goths.

**Younger readers might be surprised to learn that at the end of the twentieth century most people didn't own a mobile phone, and instead relied on a device that plugged into your house. It was the dark ages.

***But we're not, because we're outrageously, stupidly busy. Planning to come back stronger in 2019 though, so watch this space...

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