Several years ago my wife Katie and I had a conversation about superheroes as modern mythology. Instead of the pantheons of gods and demigods, we have the Avengers and the Justice League, basically. It became a starting point for looking at fandom as religion. Both are metaphorical or allegorical, commenting on human nature as much as providing us with thrilling adventure stories. There are also broad and varied interpretations of each; it’s hard to determine what the definitive telling of the Hercules story might be, because even the Bibliotheca was compiled from earlier plays and poems.
People have their favorite stories, of course, and their preferred versions of characters. Something resonates with them. A superhero story might align with what DC or Marvel consider to be the official history at the time. In a lot of cases it’s the first version of the character we encounter, often the portrayal we saw during childhood. It can become entwined with our values, our concept of how the world works, and even our sense of self.
Fandom as Religion
The word canon is itself a religious word, referring to which text are considered part of doctrine and dogma, and which aren’t. Anything that’s outside of canon is, practically by definition, heretical. If we view superheroes, and by extension that other franchises of geekdom that portray larger-than-life characters here to save the world through the lens of religion, a lot of fandom behaviors start to make more sense. It explains why people get so angry when new stories stray from what they consider to be canon. The phrase “my childhood is ruined” still seems a tad extreme. With context the sense of betrayal is a bit more understandable.
While the religious fervor of fandom can be problematic, I’m not here to say that the phenomena itself is a problem. Like religion, fandom can help to build community, give people a sense of purpose, and motivate people toward good works. I certainly can’t propose any solutions for when peoples’ behavior turns toxic. What I do think is that be reframing fandom, we can understand it better. We can ensure that it’s a force for good, rather than a blunt instrument of hate, fear, and exclusion.