I used to read every Batman comic.
The moment I stopped doing so was an important milestone in my love for the character. It was the moment I learned that you can’t change your favorite story when it lets you down, but you can change how you engage with it.
This is a message many fans don’t want to hear, as they angle for nothing less than control of their favorite franchises. One group of Star Wars fans requested that Lucasfilm remake Star Wars: The Last Jedi in order to “save” the series. And this week a group of Game of Thrones fans released a Change.org petition asking HBO to remake the final season of Game of Thrones with “competent writers.” It currently has over 820,000 signatures.
But a story is not a conversation, it’s a statement. And there is a healthier way — healthier for our culture, and healthier for you — to react when you feel betrayed by something you love.
Why I stopped reading (some) Batman comics
There was a time, a bit after I got out of college, that the writer charting the direction of the Batman line made a number of decisions I didn’t like. I could feel the heat rising in my face every time I read a new issue. Beloved characters were killed off, while others were abandoned by the narrative for the sake of his new favorites. How dare he ignore years of characterization in favor of a take on the character I knew to be wrong?
Looking back now, with a decade more Batman under my (utility) belt, I recognize that the underlying conflict was really pretty simple: Grant Morrison, and folks who liked his stories, liked Batman for different reasons than I did. Not bad reasons, necessarily. Just different ones.
But at the time, phew, it made me livid. Reading comics became a chore, and eventually, slowly — even fearfully — I began to wonder if I should consider not reading some Batman comics.
This felt like a betrayal of my own identity, at first. I was a person who Read Every Batman Comic. I’d been that person throughout my formative teenage years into adulthood. Knowing that I knew what was going on in every single Batman storyline was like a mental safety blanket.
But it came with a hard truth that I’d yet to internalize: I didn’t own Batman. I had always known this in the literal, legal sense. But I had also always somewhat believed that my dedication to his stories meant that I was owed something, at least in some metaphorical way. The character was mine, and my feelings about each arc mattered in way that transcended those of most fans.
That’s a toxic attitude, and it’s one that seems incredibly common in our current media landscape.
Loving something doesn’t mean you own it
This simple fact is true for dating, children, and media.
Creators owe fans respect for the audience’s emotional investment in the work. For example, it’s gauche for an artist to disparage their fans for being emotionally invested in their fiction, when the entire purpose of fiction is, and has always been, to create real emotions about a fake thing.
Anything past that is icing. It might be financially advantageous for a creator to engage or respond to the audience; doing so might be considered polite, or good etiquette, but the interaction only has to flow one way.
Expecting creators to revise work after it is released or even to merely participate in the conversation around their work, is a breach of social contract — and expecting that the massive media corporations behind so many modern creators will do the same will leave you exhausted, every time. It’s OK to be disappointed by something without asking that the creators hand you control over that thing, especially if control to you only means that they have to do it again, in the way you’d prefer.
That’s not to say you shouldn’t criticize it. A critic, no matter how many internet commenters pretend otherwise, is not the opposite of a fan. The critical voice has to exist for art to get better; people have to feel comfortable criticizing the things they love and holding them accountable for the impact they may have on the world.
But criticism isn’t, by itself, a call for something to be destroyed, revised, or taken away from its creators — it’s not asking for control. It’s a necessary function of our interactions with pop culture that is in many ways cheapened by these calls to erase and re-create something to meet the expectations of certain fans.
There are other ways to engage
Recognizing that you don’t own a piece media just because you love it — and that creators don’t owe you anything but the work in front of you — has nothing to do with loving it less. It’s about figuring out a healthier way to love it the same way.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that every Star Trek fan absolutely cannot stand at least one entire Star Trek series, but which one you despise is purely up to personal preference. Superhero comics are proof that you cannot keep an interconnected universe together for 50 plus years without alienating some of your audience at some point.
We live in the age of the franchise, of fiction as a brand. The most dominant stories in our cultural consciousness are designed to go on forever, and the law of averages states that at some point those stories are going to be bad. But that also means that eventually, that writer you don’t like will rotate out. The characters you do like will be resurrected. Game of Thrones fans who don’t care for the ending of the television show can still look forward to the books.
If you’re mad at the final season of Game of Thrones, criticize it. Engage with it however you need to. For example, fanfiction isn’t only an outlet for when one feels let down by canonical media, but it is one that is creative, social, and doesn’t expect recognition from creators!
But you’re headed to a dangerous, toxic place the moment that you cross the line from explaining what changes you would have made to arguing that you should be able to force HBO or the show’s creators to make those changes.
At that point you’re not upset about Game of Thrones, you’re upset because you feel that the thing that you feel makes up a part of who you are was treated poorly. It’s not about a character being treated unfairly, it’s about you being treated unfairly. But you weren’t treated unfairly. You got exactly as much as the creator owed you: Their work.
And I am telling you — as a person who is still deeply, deeply invested in Batman in all media forms — that the ability to recognize when you’ve invested too much of your identity into a piece of media and then recalibrate how you engage with it ...
It will make you a happier person
What happened when I stopped reading every Batman comic, the locus of my identity for nearly a decade? I read other comics. I paid more attention to creator names. I started being excited every time I looked up my pull list.
And I kept reading and enjoying quite a few Batman books, because I found a way to do it without making myself miserable.
The emotional tie to a beloved fandom that disappointed never quite goes away, just like an emotional tie to a beloved person who disappointed you. If you ask me what I think about the DC Films slate, my Fan Voice will say that I felt sick to my stomach for most of my Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice screening.
But my Critic Voice will tell you that what Zack Snyder loves about Batman are not things that I love about Batman, it will explain why I don’t like those things about Batman, and mention that I look forward to the next time a filmmaker gets to take a stab at my favorite character. It doesn’t mean I think I should have script approval of the next Batman film.
We have no control over how our favorite media engages with criticism, but we are in full control of how we engage with our favorite media, and that is not something to be ignored. We don’t own our favorite stories — but they don’t own us, either.