Critical Approaches Fandom

Put a Cap on It: Update from Matthew J. Smith

For the past decade, Dr. Smith has been bringing students to Comic-Con as part of a field study course called the Experience at Comic-Con.

As we mentioned in a previous post, our initial trip to Comic-Con 2016 was made possible in large part thanks to Dr. Matthew J. Smith. For the past decade, Dr. Smith has been bringing students to Comic-Con as part of a field study course called the Experience at Comic-Con. (YES – this means course credit for attending Comic-Con! CRAZY – right!??!)
Dr. Smith was kind enough to share some of his experience with the program at this year’s Comic-Con with ProfsDoPop:


Put a Cap on It;
or I Didn’t Know I Needed That!
Matthew J. Smith
Director of the School of Communication
Radford University

Every year I attend Comic-Con, there’s always an item for sale that arrests my attention. Considering the sheer sensory overload of sights, sounds, and (unfortunately) smells that assail one in the San Diego Convention Center, it has to be pretty remarkable to stand out. This year that item was the 13-foot tall, 1-ton Captain America bronze statue.

I had actually read about the statue in a press release put out by Marvel just prior to Comic-Con. The release explained how the statue had been commissioned to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Star-Spangled Avenger and that after its debut in San Diego, the statue would tour the nation before settling in Brooklyn, the hometown of the fictional character.

So, going into the Con, I knew to look for the statue at the Marvel booth and anticipated the statues perceived purpose: to not merely honor the character but to extend Marvel brand awareness in a marketing tool fairly untapped by the comics industry heretofore. (The other remarkable superhero statue that I am aware of is located in Metropolis, Illinois, home of an annual Superman festival, but I’m unclear to what extent Time Warner/DC Comics had in the creation of it. You’ve probably seen the famous shot of Barack Obama posed in front of it.)

But what left me awestruck wasn’t the handsomely crafted statue so much as the miniature replicas that were for sale alongside it. Convention goers were just the first folks who could purchase scale replicas of the statue for their own collections—and a hefty price. Comicave Studios had crafted for Marvel not only a singularly towering piece of propaganda aimed at raising brand awareness, they had created an advertisement for another collectible for the audience’s consumption. For every fan whose home is filled with Cap action figures, replica shields, and DVDs, this statue stood out as an enormous billboard for yet another collectible geared towards appealing to their devotion and admiration for the character.

For the previous ten years, I’ve been leading groups of students to Comic-Con to examine just these kinds of interactions, between faithful fans making a pilgrimage to celebrate their love for the popular arts and the makers and purveyors of popular culture who are there to market the next great obsession. The program has welcomed both undergraduate and graduate students to engage the methods of ethnographic research to explore the tension between these forces as well as their own role in it.

Dr. Matt Smith and participants of the Experience at Comic-Con sit with author Rob Salkowitz before heading into the depths of the San Diego Convention Center.
Dr. Matt Smith and participants of the Experience at Comic-Con sit with author Rob Salkowitz before heading into the depths of the San Diego Convention Center.

This year was no exception. There are always ample examples of fans and marketers in engaging with one another, whether it takes place in the hugely appointed Exhibit Hall or the cavernous Hall H, and my student always seem to find fascinating examples. And each year, I too find myself taken aback by the creativity—and some might say audacity—of the marketers. Still, awed as I was by the technique, I wasn’t even tempted to own the replica statue. I’m content with a few more modest keepsakes previously marketed for Captain America, made of plastics and paper. I’ll leave the bronze to collectors with deeper pockets than my own . . . and the folks in Brooklyn.


Matthew J. Smith, Ph.D., is director of the School of Communication at Radford University in Virginia. In collaboration with Randy Duncan and Paul Levitz, he is co-author of The Power of Comics: History, Form and Culture, 2nd Edition. Smith’s previous collaborations include It Happens at Comic-Con: Ethnographic Essays on a Pop Culture Phenomenon and the Eisner-nominated Critical Approaches to Comics: Theories and Methods.

 

Leave a Reply