Fandom is a great place.
Sure, it has its ups and downs like any large, diverse community, but for the most part fandom–particularly the fandom surrounding pop culture spheres such as science fiction, gaming, and TV–is a mostly positive sort of place. It’s a way people come together to celebrate shared interests and enthusiasm.
And one nice thing about fandom is that it didn’t need the Internet to happen.
Fandom has been strong since long before the computer revolution, and the Internet has only allowed that community to grow and strengthen.
Let’s take a look at some seminal points in fan history.
1939 – The First World Science Fiction Convention
The World Science Fiction Convention–commonly referred to as Worldcon–has been a yearly event since 1939. The only years it was not held were 1942 to 1945 during World War II. Other than that, it’s been the longest-running annual family reunion for fans of science fiction and fantasy in existence. It began, and continues to be, a convention by fans for fans, with a heavy literary track. While these days Worldcon also features modern media, comics, costuming, and art fandom, it’s still one of the best places to meet your favorite science fiction or fantasy author. It’s where I met Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. It’s where I had a drink with George R.R. Martin. I’ve made a lot of friends over the years at Worldcons.
The first Worldcon was held in New York City in 1939 around the same time as the infamous “The World of Tomorrow” New York World’s Fair. There were only around 200 attendees, but some of those attendees were such well-known names as Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Harry Harrison, John W. Campbell, L. Sprague de Camp, Jack Williamson, and guest of honor Frank R. Paul.
This may also be the first documented case of fans dressing up in costumes at a science fiction convention. Forry Ackerman and Myrtle Douglas both came dressed in futuristic garb designed and sewn by Douglas.
Cosplay is older than most people think.
The event wasn’t without its controversy.
In what was called “The Great Exclusion Act”, a number of fans–members of the groundbreaking Futurians–were denied entry to the event by convention chair Sam Moskowitz.
Many say the exclusion was the result of political differences (much of early New York fandom had connections to socialist organizations), but Fred Pohl (who was there and a member of the Futurians) stated pretty clearly that it was more likely a personality conflict.
Pohl felt that Moskowitz thought that Futurians thought they were better than everyone else.
See? Even then fans had silly feuds.
But fandom endured.
Despite all that, July 2 to 4, 1939, saw the dawn of the science fiction convention. Who knew where that would lead?
1968 & 69 – The Campaign to Save Star Trek
Remember Star Trek?
The original series, I mean. It ran for only three seasons, but had one of the largest impacts on popular culture the world has ever seen.
Did you know we almost only got one season?
Star Trek was in real danger of fading into relative obscurity like so many other science fiction shows of the 60s.
Some fans weren’t having that. When Gene Roddenberry heard of the possibility of Star Trek not being renewed for a second season, he got the word out and, with the help of popular science fiction author Harlan Ellison, they got fans and other well-known science fiction authors to write letters in support of continuing the series.
It worked. Huzzah!
When it looked, again, like the show wouldn’t make it past a second season, superfans John and Bjo Trimble orchestrated a letter writing campaign among fans that was so massive that NBC eventually had to do a voice-over announcement declaring that Star Trek was not cancelled and to please stop writing letters. There were demonstrations. When was the last time a TV show got its own public demonstrations to convince studio execs to keep a show on the air?
Now we all know (or should know) that of the three seasons, the third season was probably the weakest. That said, it was still a hugely important season.
Because, at the time, TV shows that did not go beyond two seasons were not put up for syndication. Because Star Trek got its third season, it became a mainstay in TV syndication for decades where it continued to find new audiences and new fans–so many that it eventually spawned full-on feature movies, new television shows, games of all varieties, comic books, etc.
The success of the campaigns to save Star Trek boosted that beloved franchise we’ve all come to know and love to compare to Star Wars.
Well done, fans!
2003, 2005 – Serenity Now and the Revenge of Family Guy
The success of the Save Star Trek campaign was a rare victory. Another beloved science fiction television show, Firefly, wasn’t nearly so lucky–although the campaign to save it wasn’t without success either. Despite a very concerted effort by fans, with the power of the Internet behind them, Firefly was cancelled not only after one season, but with three whole episodes unaired.
Well the fans weren’t going to take that sitting down. DVD sales of the series in 2003 were much higher than network executives expected. There was no return to television, but because of a push by fans to all purchase copies on the same day in order to send a message, and because of the DVD sales, Firefly got a full length movie.
While box office for the movie was a little disappointing, DVD sales were not. There was a time, ever so briefly, when there was some serious effort by various networks to bring Joss Whedon’s genius series back, but it was, sadly, to no avail.
(Fun fact: One fan fundraiser event raised over $14,000 in donations in order to put a DVD box set of Firefly aboard 250 US Navy ships in April 2004.)
But not all recent TV campaigns failed. Seth MacFarlane’s shockingly funny Family Guy was cancelled, yet managed a triumphant return to television. Family Guy survived three seasons before cancellation, but high DVD sales and high ratings during reruns on Adult Swim convinced networks to bring the show back–after a three-year absence to huge ratings and success.
These days, the show may be moving a bit beyond its original charm, but it’s impressive, nonetheless, to have a show brought back from the dead. What’s kind of interesting about that, too, is that networks are less entirely against reviving older shows. Cable networks and online streaming services have been exploring bringing back old favorites because fans want it so.
Mind you, it can be a bit of a mixed bag. For every renewed Futurama and Arrested Development, we’re going to get a few Fuller Houses.
And I’ve heard rumors… maybe just rumors… of a new Firefly someday.
Funny old world.
2004 – PAX – The Convention We’ve Always Needed
If you don’t know what PAX is, as in PAX Prime (now PAX West), PAX East, PAX South, and PAX Australia, then what have you been doing on the Internet all this time? Looking at pictures of kittens wearing raincoats? (That does sound kind of cute.)
PAX, short for Penny Arcade Expo, is the brainchild of Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik–creators of the webcomic Penny Arcade (penny-arcade.com). These days, PAX is known as the most popular and fastest-growing gaming convention series in the world–an event that attracts millions of attendees on two continents and showcases the very best the gaming industry (both electronic and traditional) has to offer. PAX also features entertainers of a decidedly geek nature, and industry key note speakers. It’s… it’s just huge.
Why did it happen?
Because there was a need. At the time, there were no conventions that focused primarily on gaming conventions that were by gamers and for gamers. There were media-focused gaming events such as E3, but those were mostly for industry professionals and journalists. They weren’t for the gamers themselves. Fans need not apply. Gaming conventions existed, but they were more for tabletop players. Penny Arcade decided that this just wouldn’t do and announced the first PAX, a two-day event, on April 12, 2004 to be held in August of that year in Bellevue, Washington.
While PAX grew quite large, quite quickly, the very first Penny Arcade Expo only had 3,300 attendees. Despite a fairly small attendance as conventions go, the event still attracted exhibitors including Warner Bros., Ubisoft, and Microsoft. They pretty much hit the ground running. It became very clear that this was the convention that needed to be–and now it’s a mighty force to be reckoned with, and in the dozen or so years it’s been running one PAX has spawned into four events across the globe with individual attendance numbers in excess of 70,000 people with passes selling out in mere hours.
Not bad for two guys who started out making jokes about video games and wangs.
That’s only four big events (well, four and a half? how are we counting these?) in the timeline of fandom well worthy of note. Fans do awesome stuff when they want to.
We’ll talk more later about just how awesome some of that stuff can be.