When Comic Fans Become Villains

The Captain Marvel backlash shows that fandom can be cruel. And Stan Lee is partly to blame

Wikimedia Commons/Yevhenii Dubinko/iStock/The Walrus
Wikimedia Commons/Yevhenii Dubinko/iStock/The Walrus

Last week’s release of the new Captain Marvel hit many milestones. It was Marvel Studios’ first film starring a woman. It was the first film produced by Marvel to feature a female director, and only its second to credit a female screenwriter. Less discussed is that Captain Marvel is the first live-action Marvel film released since the death, this past November, of Stan Lee, Marvel Comics’ beloved chairman emeritus and cocreator of dozens of beloved characters, including Spider-Man, the Hulk, and the X-Men. I wouldn’t quite say it’s fitting that Lee passed away before the company he helped transform into a household name finally got around to making a movie about a female superhero, but it is significant. As a Marvel fan and comic-book scholar, I mourned Lee in my own fashion, but I don’t miss his approach to female superheroes. Most of the female superheroes Lee cocreated, such as the Invisible Girl and Marvel Girl, spent much of the 1960s getting kidnapped by supervillains, cleaning up after their male teammates, and posing like pinups on the fringes of pitched battles, a single raised hand capped with a delicately pointed fingernail gesturing toward the fray.

The titular star of this latest Marvel movie, Captain Marvel, a.k.a Carol Danvers, is a different kind of hero—an Air Force pilot turned space-faring warrior. Though Danvers first appeared in Marvel comics in 1968, she first became a superhero in 1977, at the height of second-wave feminism. Dubbed “Ms. Marvel,” the ’70s version of Danvers, created by Gerry Conway and John Buscema, was inspired, as her name suggests, by Gloria Steinem. Where Steinem created and edited Ms. magazine, Danvers edited Woman magazine; where Steinem featured Wonder Woman on the cover of the first issue of Ms., Danvers featured herself as Ms. Marvel on the first issue of Woman, soaring through the air to punch a giant robot in the face.

Carol Danvers’ feminism has long been controversial among certain comic fans. Recent weeks have proven that, decades later, it continues to be. Well before any screenings of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s Captain Marvel were available, a legion of angry men flooded the review website Rotten Tomatoes with negative comments about the film. This coordinated campaign came after Brie Larson, who stars as Captain Marvel, made a call for increased diversity on the promotional circuit for the movie. According to an article from The A.V. Club, “fans” responded by leaving negative comments, such as, “brie larson has already said this isnt for me.i’ll spend my money elsewhere” [sic] and “I somehow feel that Skull are not the enemy, but that I am, since Brie Larsen has been careful to state she doesn’t want the Press Tour to include types like me.” The vitriol was so intense and sustained that it prompted Rotten Tomatoes to revise its policy and stop allowing pre-release fan reviews and ratings of all films. As the backlash against the Captain Marvel film shows, comic-book fandom can be a very cruel and regressive place. And Stan Lee—who is memorialized in the movie’s opening credit sequence—is at least partly to blame for it.

In the ’60s and ’70s, during his tenure as Marvel Comics’ head writer and editor, Lee helped develop several innovative storytelling strategies. Some of these—like giving superheroes relatable human emotions and flaws—are obvious enough to be somewhat inevitable. Others, like Lee and company’s decision to situate the vast stable of Marvel characters in the real world (most often the streets, alleyways, and rooftops of New York City) and create a “shared-continuity universe” in which those characters could, across different titles, fight, team up, fall in love, and—for a time, anyway—age, are more singular. Lee’s greatest achievement, though, may be his role in shaping Marvel’s especially passionate, participatory, and territorial fan culture.

At first, the Marvel fandom was largely conventional, built around letters pages featuring polls and friendly, short exchanges with the creators—usually Lee himself. Over time, though, the (relative) emotional complexity of the Marvel universe helped foster what was, for superhero comics, an unusually deep, prolonged, and mature type of engagement. In the ’50s, superhero comics were seen as “kids’ stuff”; by the ’70s, Lee was being invited to give talks on college campuses. Lee both encouraged this maturity and invented it. Long before there could have been any measurable change in readership behaviour or demographics, Lee was already singling out Marvel fans as special, describing them, just like the comics themselves, as smarter than the competition. As early as the letters page in Fantastic Four #3, from 1962, a comic that predates the modern Marvel logo, Lee wrote: “unlike many other collections of letters in different mags, our fans all seem to write well, and intelligently. We assume this denotes that our readers are a cut above average, and that’s the way we like ’em!”

In the years that followed, Lee encouraged this feeling of specialness by making himself uniquely accessible to fans and by depicting himself as a fan. Both techniques are evident in Fantastic Four #10, from 1963, wherein Lee, alongside long-time collaborator Jack Kirby, makes his first Marvel Universe cameo. This scene, in which fictionalized versions of Lee and Kirby are shown dreaming up the fake adventures of a real Fantastic Four—and then being confronted by the team’s main adversary, Doctor Doom—mythologizes the process of creation, demystifies it, then mythologizes it again. Lee and Kirby exist in the same world as the Fantastic Four; they also, through their demonstrated fannishness, exist in the same world as the reader—therefore, the reader exists in the same world as the Fantastic Four.

Yet being what Lee called a “true believer” or a member of the Merry Marvel Marching Society also demanded intense commitment to a cause that wasn’t always so egalitarian. None of the innovations Lee contributed to and oversaw can be divorced from the business of selling comics. The shared-continuity universe meant that fans had to buy more comics to get the whole story, and making fans feel special went hand in hand with establishing a brand loyalty that denigrated Marvel’s chief rival, DC Comics, which Lee referred to as “Brand Echh.” Marvel even created a parody comic Not Brand Echh, which ran from 1967 to 1969, the joke being that all Marvel fans needed to know to buy a comic was a guarantee it wasn’t published by DC.

Fast forward five decades, and the Marvel brand has never been more profitable. Though monthly comic book readership is a fraction of what it was when Lee was head of Marvel, the multi-billion-dollar success of the company’s many superhero films has brought tremendous cultural credibility and made the Marvel-versus-DC debate a mainstream preoccupation. In addition, the ubiquity of the internet and social media, as well as the transformation of comic conventions from small, regional concerns to international showcases attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors, means the creators of superhero stories now interact with their fans more than ever. It’s also never been easier to see the dark side of the fandom Lee helped pioneer.

As the Marvel Universe’s continuity gets ever longer and more convoluted, and the comics Lee created with Kirby, Steve Ditko, and others become ever-more legendary, the fan empowerment that Lee encouraged has fed into a sometimes-dangerous sense of entitlement purportedly rooted in an avowed loyalty to Marvel canon and tradition. The backlash surrounding the Captain Marvel film, which involves men expressing outrage at the mere existence of a Marvel-produced superhero story that is not specifically designed for them, is only the latest example. In 2013, when Michael B. Jordan was cast as the Human Torch in the Josh Trank–directed Fantastic Four reboot, some fans were outraged that a black actor was chosen for the role. Though superhero fans often debate casting choices, Jordan published his own summary of the complaints in an essay for Entertainment Weekly titled “Why I’m Torching the Color Line.” Writes Jordan: “[A]fter taking on Johnny Storm in Fantastic Four—a character originally written with blond hair and blue eyes—I wanted to check the pulse out there.…Turns out this is what they were saying: ‘A black guy? I don’t like it. They must be doing it because Obama’s president’ and ‘It’s not true to the comic.’ Or even, ‘They’ve destroyed it!’” These responses to Jordan’s casting are, in part, boilerplate racism. Yet they also reveal how easily the Marvel brand of fandom can be mobilized to justify racism. Fans rejected Jordan out of supposed loyalty (“It’s not true to the comic”) and seemed to feel justified in conveying near-hysterical passion for the source text (“They’ve destroyed it!”).

In addition—and somewhat contradictorily—the charge that Jordan’s casting prioritized “politics” above good or entertaining storytelling can be read in conversation with Lee’s general rejection of seriousness and overt political stands. When Lee was asked to weigh in on the Jordan casting controversy, he was quoted by Entertainment Weekly as saying, “I thought it was a great idea!” He also, however, dismissed the racism of fans’ responses in favor of sympathizing with their loyalty to Marvel canon. “They’re outraged not because of any personal prejudice,” said Lee. “They’re outraged because they hate to see any change made on a series and characters they had gotten familiar with. In Spider-Man, when they got a new actor, that bothered them, even though it was a white actor. I don’t think it had to do with racial prejudice as much as they don’t like things changed.”

Thankfully, the fan empowerment Lee encouraged isn’t always so negative. Which brings us back to Captain Marvel. The new Captain Marvel film would not exist without the passionate efforts of writer Kelly Sue DeConnick and the legion of fans her writing has helped inspire. In 2012, DeConnick spearheaded the rejuvenation of Carol Danvers in the Marvel comics canon, and promoted her from “Ms” to “Captain.” This change was accompanied by an updated feminist message: the first story arc of DeConnick’s Captain Marvel foregrounds female mentorship and community, with Danvers time travelling to the Second World War to fight alongside a squad of female soldiers, and then to the ’60s to meet up with her idol, a fictional flying ace named Helen Cobb. This feminist message was bolstered by Danvers acquiring a new full-body-covering costume that, unlike the thong-backed bathing suit and thigh-high boots she’d been wearing on and off for over two decades, reflected her military background.

DeConnick’s Captain Marvel quickly garnered a dedicated fanbase—the Carol Corps. These fans help promote and disseminate Captain Marvel comics around the world and maintain an active presence at comic cons, often while wearing costumes inspired by their hero. The Carol Corps also promotes positive representations of women in comics and the diversification of comic book fandom: there is a Carol Corps Tumblr account that promotes fan art depicting many different versions of female strength and empowerment, and the Carol Corps Wiki includes information for beginners on where to purchase comics online and how to find a comic-book store. Just like Lee and Kirby did in 1963, these fans have also breached the wall between fantasy and reality—some are depicted as fighting alongside Carol Danvers in the 2015 series Captain Marvel and the Carol Corps, written by DeConnick and Kelly Thompson.

I’d like to think that Lee, the son of Romanian-Jewish immigrants (his birth name was Stanley Lieber), would have liked the hopeful example of DeConnick’s Captain Marvel. Like Lee and Kirby’s self-reflexive cameo in Fantastic Four #10, DeConnick’s work shows that fans can be creators, creators can be fans, and everyone can be a hero. But, in the end, Lee’s opinion doesn’t really matter. Once, we had Lee to guide us toward the future; now, we have DeConnick, Brie Larson, Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck, and the countless other people who, like me, love the superhero genre enough to want to see it generate better stories for more people. Lee ended all of his Marvel columns with the catchphrase “excelsior,” meaning “higher.” Carol Danvers’s catchphrase, invented by DeConnick and featured in the promotion for the Captain Marvel film, is similar, but more ambitious: “Higher, Further, Faster.”

Anna Peppard
"Anna F. Peppard is a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada postdoctoral fellow at Brock University. She has published widely on representations of sex, gender, and race in popular media and is a regular panelist on the comic book podcast Three Panel Contrast.