September 19, 2019, 3:50

Superfans: A Love Story

Superfans: A Love Story

On June 29, 2018, Wanna Thompson, a freelance music journalist, was in an Uber with her boyfriend, headed into downtown Toronto to watch a podcast taping. Thompson had spent part of the day listening to new music by Nicki Minaj, including a typically braggadocious track called “Barbie Tingz.” (“I’m still fly, just bagged a white guy, / Ritchie-like guy and I still eat Thai.”) Thompson, who was twenty-six, could recite most of Minaj’s lyrics by heart. Minaj, like Thompson’s mother, is from Trinidad, and Thompson admired her as one of the few female rappers to become mega-famous. “I was a hundred per cent a fan,” she told me recently.

But, listening to the new stuff, Thompson worried that Minaj’s musical progression had stalled. From the car, she tweeted to her fourteen thousand followers, “You know how dope it would be if Nicki put out mature content? No silly shit. Just reflecting on past relationships, being a boss, hardships, etc. She’s touching 40 soon, a new direction is needed.” When Thompson got to the show, she put her phone away. By the time she checked it again, two hours later, her tweet had gone viral. “I had, like, hundreds of superfans just trashing me,” Thompson recalled. She was receiving so many direct messages—some telling her to kill herself, some accusing her of not being a “true fan”—that her phone kept crashing. And there was a message from Minaj’s official account. It read, “Eat a dick u hating ass hoe. Got the nerve to have a trini flag on ur page.” The message added, “Just say u jealous I’m rich, famous intelligent, pretty and go! But wait! Leave my balls! Tired of u sucking them.”

Thompson, convinced that the message was fake, showed it to her boyfriend. “I was stunned,” she said. She responded with some lines from Maya Angelou: “You may kill me with your hatefulness / But still, like air, I rise.” Minaj later denied sending the messages, but, on her own Twitter account, which had twenty-one million followers, she posted a list of songs that presumably proved her maturity, including “Pills N Potions.” Thompson set her Twitter account to private, but, at around 10 p.m., her phone began lighting up with angry text messages; someone had circumvented the lax security measures on her Web site and leaked her number. She changed all her passwords and frantically scrubbed her old tweets of any mention of her day job, in human resources, or her middle name, which she used at work.

At the time, Thompson was an unpaid intern for a hip-hop blog run by the marketing strategist Karen Civil. Within hours, the site manager e-mailed Thompson to tell her that her internship had been terminated. The company said that she had violated a nondisclosure agreement and that Minaj was one of Civil’s clients. (Thompson says that she didn’t know this and has denied violating the N.D.A. Civil told me that Thompson had seen her client list and that the site didn’t allow “hot takes.”) The next day, Thompson posted screenshots of the messages from Minaj’s account, but this only inflamed the rapper’s fans. One harasser lifted an Instagram photo of Thompson’s daughter, who was four years old, and photoshopped her face onto a gorilla’s body.

Like most music idols, Minaj has a hardcore fan base with a collective name, the Barbz; Beyoncé has the Beyhive, Justin Bieber the Beliebers, and Lady Gaga the Little Monsters. The most fervent among them are called “stans.” The term derives from a 2000 track by Eminem, in which he raps about a fictitious fan named Stan (short for “stalker fan”), who becomes so furious that Eminem hasn’t responded to his letters that he drives himself off a bridge with his pregnant girlfriend in the trunk. Unlike regular fans, stans see themselves as crusaders, pledging loyalty and rushing to their idol’s defense against dissenters. Thompson was on the receiving end of a maneuver known as the clapback, in which a star actually responds to a lowly hater. Like Queen Victoria’s cavalry, the stans follow suit and attack.

“When it comes to stans and how they operate on social media, it’s crazy to witness,” Thompson told me. “These people really think that they’re doing some due diligence by the celebrity.” More than a year later, she continues to receive messages from angry Barbz. She ended friendships with people who she says didn’t defend her online, and she no longer listens to Minaj’s music. “I felt very weird when this whole thing happened,” she said, “because I was such a huge fan of hers.”

A glance around the pop-culture landscape gives the impression that fans have gone mad. In May, viewers of HBO’s “Game of Thrones” revolted against the show’s final two episodes, in which the dragon queen, Daenerys Targaryen, took a turn toward the genocidal. Some critics accused the showrunners, both of whom were men, of propagating the idea that women in power are inevitably crazy. Others complained that the personality change was too implausible, or that the whole season was rushed, or that it simply sucked. More than 1.7 million people signed a petition on Change.org to “remake Game of Thrones Season 8 with competent writers.” At a press conference, HBO’s programming president, Casey Bloys, turned down the request, though he acknowledged the fans’ “enthusiasm and passion.”

 

Watch “The Backstory”:
Michael Schulman reports on how the Internet has brought fan communities together.

The outcry bore similarities to the fan uprising against “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” released in 2017. Much of the backlash had to do with Luke Skywalker not acting quite like Luke Skywalker, now that he had rematerialized as a sour middle-aged hermit. Like Daenerys, he wasn’t the hero that fans had long held him to be. Some fans were also mad that Rey, the orphaned heroine, was revealed not to be secretly of noble lineage, undercutting two years of carefully worked-out fan theories. Detractors swarmed Rotten Tomatoes, posting bad reviews, and petitioned Disney to strike the film from the “official canon.” (Again, no dice.)

Some of the crankiness had a Trumpian cast. Many of the new “Star Wars” characters were women and people of color, and the Asian-American cast member Kelly Marie Tran was harassed online so violently that she quit social media. The episode echoed previous fan wars such as Gamergate, in which male video-game fanatics targeted feminist gamers, and the troll campaign against the all-female “Ghostbusters” remake and its black star, Leslie Jones.

Most people are fans of something, whether it’s the Red Sox, “Hamilton,” or Agatha Christie. But the nature of fandom seems to have morphed in the past decade. In the old days of sci-fi conventions and Bobby Sherman fan clubs, fandom was a subculture reserved for the very young or the very obsessed—or, in the case of the Grateful Dead, the very stoned. As fantasy and comic-book franchises have taken over the entertainment industry, nerd culture has become mainstream. Now that couch potatoes have social media, they have risen up and become active, opinionated participants. As a result, movie studios and TV showrunners have to cater to subsets of diehard devotees, who expect to have a say in how their favorite properties are handled.

The ramifications can be loud and, occasionally, expensive. This spring, Paramount released the trailer for “Sonic the Hedgehog,” a movie based on the vintage Sega character, featuring live action and C.G.I. Fans were so disturbed by the title character’s creepy human teeth that Paramount postponed the release date three months to give him a dental makeover, at great cost. (One person wrote on Twitter, “I’ve thought about Sonic the Hedgehog’s creepy lipless mouth and his horrible human teeth more times today than I want to in my entire life.”) “That’s the power of fandom,” a producer who worked on the 2014 reboot of “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” told me. That film weathered its own fan blowback, when Michael Bay, another producer on the movie, implied, in an interview, that the turtles were aliens (every fan knows they were mutated by toxic ooze) and then had to walk back his comments. For the sequel, the producers incorporated everything the fans said they wanted—among other things, making the villain Krang, a talking brain—but the movie earned less money than the first one. The producer I spoke to said, “The question we always ask ourselves in the room is: Is the fan base so strong and such an important part of the box office that we have to change something to keep them happy?”

Other fan movements are more sinister. Right after “Avengers: Endgame” was released, in April, Taiwanese media reported that a man in Hong Kong was beaten bloody by a crowd of moviegoers after he stood outside a cinema shouting out spoilers. Four months earlier, fans of the pop star Ariana Grande—the Arianators—relentlessly targeted her ex-boyfriend, the “Saturday Night Live” cast member Pete Davidson, after her breakup anthem “thank u, next” hit No. 1. Davidson, who had spoken publicly about being bipolar and having suicidal thoughts, responded in an open letter: “No matter how hard the internet or anyone tries to make me kill myself. I won’t.” Grande tried to call off the hounds, writing online, “i feel like i need to remind my fans to please be gentler with others.”

One of the most belligerent—and embattled—fan phalanxes belongs to Michael Jackson. In July, three fan groups announced a joint lawsuit against James Safechuck and Wade Robson, the two men who detailed horrifying child-molestation allegations against Jackson in the documentary “Leaving Neverland.” The suit was filed in France, where tarnishing the image of the deceased is a crime. Each fan group demanded a nominal payment of one euro, and their lawyer, Emmanuel Ludot, called the allegations a “genuine lynching.” Frivolous as it seems, the suit gets at the heart of modern fandom: an attack against a celebrity or a beloved character is an attack against the fans, and it is their duty to retaliate.

Fan dustups are often proxy wars for larger social conflicts, like changing demographics or post-#MeToo feminism. The language of fandom, in turn, has invaded politics; supporters might “fangirl” Beto O’Rourke or cheer on clapbacks from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. (A recent Twitter prompt: “Stan Elizabeth Warren, but make it poetry.”) The rise of Donald Trump, who was a pop-culture icon before he was a politician, neatly overlaps with the rise of toxic fandom, and Trump has pronounced himself “not a fan” of Jeffrey Epstein, the Vietnam War, and cryptocurrency. Some fan wars may themselves be wag-the-dog scenarios. Last year, a researcher at the University of Southern California’s Center for the Digital Future found that a significant percentage of the negative tweets about “The Last Jedi” came from Russian trolls.

In 1986, “Saturday Night Live” aired a sketch, written by Robert Smigel, set at a “Star Trek” convention, where attendees greet one another with Vulcan salutes. William Shatner, that week’s host, played himself, as the guest of honor. Barraged with inane and arcane questions, Shatner takes a deep breath at a lectern and says, “Get a life, will you, people? I mean, for crying out loud, it’s just a TV show!” The geeks are shell-shocked. “When I was your age, I didn’t watch television,” he continues. “I lived. So, move out of your parents’ basements and get your own apartments—and grow the hell up!”

At the time, Henry Jenkins was a twenty-eight-year-old doctoral student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He had grown up reading Famous Monsters of Filmland and bonded with his wife, Cynthia, over “Star Trek.” (He explained to me that the preferred term is Trekkers, not Trekkies.) Jenkins was fascinated by their different interpretations of the 1966 episode “The Menagerie,” in which Spock acts uncharacteristically emotional in flashbacks. Jenkins had read up on production history and knew that the show had reused footage from an unaired pilot; Cynthia had thought that Spock had been exploring his human side, as opposed to his more stoic Vulcan side. When Jenkins saw the “S.N.L.” sketch, it “got in my craw a bit,” he told me recently. “But so did academic writing about fans, which also treated them as blind consumers who just bought everything with a ‘Star Trek’ logo on it.”

Jenkins spent the next several years researching fan activity. He visited a group of women in Madison who wrote “Quantum Leap” fan fiction. He lurked on the newsgroup alt.tv.twinpeaks, dedicated to the David Lynch mystery series. In 1992, Jenkins published “Textual Poachers,” an “ethnographic account” in which he defended fans against pernicious stereotypes: the basement-dwelling virginal dweeb, the screaming teen girl hurling panties at Elvis. Jenkins saw fandom, he told me, as “a source of creativity and expression for massive numbers of people who would be otherwise excluded from the commercial sector.” These communities, he said, gave rise to such vernacular forms as fanzines, cosplay (fan-made costumes), and fan fiction.

“Textual Poachers” became one of the founding texts of fan studies, a field that now surveys everything from adult Lego enthusiasts to Black Twitter’s relationship with “Scandal.” Since the book’s publication, the Internet has magnified what Jenkins calls “participatory culture.” At the site An Archive of Our Own, which hosts more than thirty-three thousand fan communities, you can read fan fiction inspired by “The Hobbit,” One Direction, and “All About Eve.” Many of these stories are “slash fic”—erotic fantasies, often teasing out homoerotic subtext between the likes of, say, Kirk and Spock—but there’s a wide variety of genres, including “curtain fic,” which imagines characters going about everyday domestic activities. (Kirk and Spock go appliance shopping.) Fan fiction reached a high-water mark in 2011, when the writer E. L. James took her erotic “Twilight” fiction, changed the characters’ names, and published it as “Fifty Shades of Grey.”

Fandom, Jenkins told me, is “born out of a mix of fascination and frustration. If you weren’t drawn to it on some level, you wouldn’t be a fan. But, if it fully satisfies you, you wouldn’t need to rewrite it, remake it, re-perform it.” Nowhere is Jenkins’s constructive view of fandom more evident than at Comic-Con International, in San Diego. Comic-Con started as the Golden State Comic Book Convention, in 1970, attracting some three hundred people. It’s now a four-day bonanza attended by a hundred and thirty-five thousand fans of all stripes, many of whom show up in elaborate cosplay. When I arrived at this year’s edition, in July, I started seeing Spider-Men five blocks from the convention center. Near the entrance, a group of Christian protesters—the oldest fandom, really—was yelling, “The Syfy channel cannot save your soul!” I turned around and saw a guy dressed as Lumière, from “Beauty and the Beast,” shrugging at me with candlestick hands.

“Your son has an unctuous, grasping, power-hungry quality we find unattractive in a five-year-old.”Cartoon by Emily Flake

Inside the exhibition hall, a sea of Dumbledores, Stormtroopers, and Sailor Moons lined up for merchandise and photo ops. As Comic-Con has ballooned, Hollywood franchises have swept in to market their latest tentpole projects, unveiling trailers at starry panel discussions and wrapping fans in a mutual embrace. (By one estimate, pop-culture conventions in the U.S. are now a ninety-million-dollar industry.) The center of the hall was dominated by build-outs for “Star Wars,” Marvel, and “Doctor Who.” You had to walk a good distance to get to the old-school comic-book bazaar, which was like a rent-stabilized neighborhood in a gentrified city. A seller named Levi, who was dressed as Robin and had attended Comic-Con for fourteen years, said, “It has sold out, but not in a bad way. There’s more money, but there’s also a lot more fandom now.”

I met Daenerys Targaryen in line for Mega Construx, a rival of Lego that had built a life-size Iron Throne. Her real name was Arin, and she was twenty-three. “I’m trying to get on the Iron Throne, since I didn’t get to do that on the TV show,” she told me. She had been coming to Comic-Con since her freshman year of high school, when she dressed as Princess Bubblegum, from the cartoon series “Adventure Time.” She said that she had been dismayed by Daenerys’s downfall, because she saw the character as a model of female empowerment. “I refuse to believe anything that happened in the last season,” she said, as the line inched forward. “I mean, I know it happened, but I have my own canon: she and Jon Snow are happy, everything worked out, she has two dragons—somehow the third one came back and he’s not a zombie.”

Arin grew up in San Diego and works in digital marketing in Hollywood, where she handles promotion for comic-to-film franchises. She spends a lot of time reading online fan forums. “I know how to get into their world,” she said. “There’s a fine line to tread on how much you listen to fans, because fans aren’t always right, either. But there are certain things where you should listen to them, because they’re smarter than maybe the super-high-up execs are going to think.”

She got to the front of the line and handed her phone to her mother. When she sat on the Iron Throne, she adjusted her snow-white ringlets and shot the camera a look of regal serenity. Later, she posted her royal portrait on Instagram, with the caption “justice for khaleesi.”

“Fan” is short for “fanatic,” which comes from the Latin fanaticus, meaning “of or belonging to the temple, a temple servant, a devotee.” The vestal virgins, who maintained the sacred fire of Vesta, the goddess of hearth and home, were the Beyhive of their day. But “fanatic” came to be associated with orgiastic rites and misplaced devotion, even demonic possession, and this may explain why fan behavior is often described using religious terms, such as “worship” and “idol.” (One Trekker at Comic-Con told me that the show “replaced religion for a lot of people.”)

“Lisztomania,” coined in 1844, described the mass frenzy that occurred at Franz Liszt’s concerts, where audience members fought over the composer’s gloves or broken piano strings. Charles Dickens’s readers in New York were so anxious for the final installment of “The Old Curiosity Shop,” in 1841, that they stormed the wharf where it was arriving by ship and cried out, “Is Nell dead?” In 1893, Arthur Conan Doyle, sick of writing Sherlock Holmes stories, flung the detective off a cliff in “The Final Problem,” which ran in the magazine The Strand. (“Killed Holmes,” Conan Doyle wrote in his diary.) After readers cancelled their Strand subscriptions by the thousands and formed “Let’s Keep Holmes Alive” clubs, Conan Doyle was forced to resurrect him. Sherlock fandom persists today, thanks to the BBC series starring Benedict Cumberbatch, whose admirers, sometimes known as the Cumberbitches, have swarmed location shoots in London and filled the Internet with Sherlock-Watson slash fiction.

Newspaper writers started using the word “fan” around 1900, in accounts of baseball enthusiasts. The rise of professional sports leagues had produced a new class of spectators who didn’t necessarily play the game but pledged allegiance to a team. The word was also used, more pejoratively, about “matinée girls,” young women who attended theatre not for the plots but to gawk at favorite actors. As the movie industry blossomed, in the nineteen-tens and twenties, so did fan magazines, such as Photoplay. After the matinée idol Rudolph Valentino died, in 1926, some hundred thousand fans mobbed the streets of New York during his funeral, smashing windows and clamoring to get a last glimpse of his face.

Science-fiction fans, who have always been at the forefront of fandom, started meeting at conventions in the nineteen-thirties. The World Science Fiction Convention, which began in 1939, in conjunction with the World’s Fair, still exists, as WorldCon. (The 2019 edition was just held, in Dublin.) “Star Trek” fandom, in the late sixties, was a breakthrough. When NBC threatened to cancel the show, fans organized a letter-writing campaign and kept it on the air. The show ended after its third season, but it had aired enough episodes to qualify for syndication, allowing the viewership to expand throughout the seventies. The first major “Star Trek” convention was held in 1972, when some three thousand Trekkers gathered at the Statler Hilton hotel, in New York, under a banner that read “Star Trek Lives!”

Rock and roll dragged Lisztomania into the twentieth century, as Elvis Presley fans swooned and screamed—a phenomenon immortalized in the title of his 1959 compilation album, “50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong.” Beatlemania further crystallized the image of the screaming female fan. An underappreciated aspect of the band’s appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” in 1964, is that it spotlighted not just the Beatles but the hysterical audience. The “screaming teen” stereotype has often inspired hand-wringing or contempt, a way of policing adolescent-female libido. The fan scholar Mark Duffett has suggested that “fan screaming may be a form of ‘affective citizenship,’ ” a communal defiance of ladylike behavior.

Like television, the Internet broadened and intensified fandom. When Jenkins published “Textual Poachers,” digital fandom was “mostly guys at M.I.T. and military bases typing ‘Star Trek’ into computers while at work,” he said. Nineties shows such as “The X-Files” and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” spawned passionate fan communities that used the Web to gather, complain, or hunt for romantic subtext. (“Shippers” are fans who, often disregarding narrative logic, advocate for certain characters to couple up.) But stronger fandoms meant a stronger sense of ownership, which could put writers and producers on the defensive. The ABC show “Lost,” which ran from 2004 to 2010, inspired elaborate theorizing about its mysteries, and fans revolted when the finale didn’t deliver answers. One of the showrunners, Damon Lindelof, later lamented the conflicting demands of viewers: “There were things that they wanted, but they also wanted to be surprised.” Millions of dollars ride on the contradiction.

At Comic-Con, I met Steve Sansweet by the “Star Wars” pavilion. In 1977, Sansweet was a thirty-one-year-old Wall Street Journal reporter working in Los Angeles, and he was invited to an advance screening of “Star Wars,” at Twentieth Century Fox. “I liked all the hardware and the aliens, the story line, the good-versus-evil,” he recalled. “The mythology was sort of there, but underneath the surface of the hero’s journey.” He saved his ticket, which became the first item in a collection that has grown to more than three hundred thousand pieces, including a Darth Vader mask shown in “Return of the Jedi” and a fan portrait of Princess Leia made of buttons. The collection now occupies a nine-thousand-square-foot museum in Petaluma, California, called the Rancho Obi-Wan. Guinness World Records has named it the world’s largest collection of “Star Wars” memorabilia.

In 1990, Sansweet heard that Lucasfilm was planning to publish an official guide to collectibles. “I cold-called and said, ‘If anybody’s doing a price guide, it should be me!’ ” Six years later, as he was working on his third “Star Wars” book (he has now published seventeen), Lucasfilm offered him a temporary job in fan outreach. The fan community had been relatively quiet since “Return of the Jedi,” in 1983, but now the original trilogy was getting rereleased in advance of a set of prequels. Sansweet left his position as the Journal’s L.A. bureau chief to reignite the base. “I followed my bliss, as Joseph Campbell would say,” he told me. “And they forgot to fire me after a year, so I stayed there fifteen years.”

“But, if I don’t peel off the entire label, the label wins.”Cartoon by William Haefeli

Sansweet visited at least a dozen conventions per year and oversaw the distribution of promotional images to magazines for fans. But he also acted as a fan advocate inside Lucasfilm. When a group called 501st Legion started gathering in Imperial cosplay, he recalled, “people at Lucasfilm were a little antsy—suppose somebody robs a bank in a Stormtrooper costume?” Sansweet convinced the studio that, as long as it set ground rules, the exposure could be good. After “The Phantom Menace” came out, in 1999, he was responsible for answering mountains of letters about Jar Jar Binks, the polarizing comic-relief alien. The character was sidelined in later films, but Sansweet insisted that there were more pro-Jar Jar letters than anti-Jar Jar letters, because children loved him. “And it was before the explosion of vile that we see on the Internet these days from different fandoms,” he said, sighing. “The political situation in this country has spread to pop culture. That’s the unfortunate part of fandom: the Dark Side.”

When I was a teen-ager, in the nineties, I was obsessed with NBC’s Must-See TV lineup on Thursday nights, anchored by “Friends,” “Seinfeld,” and “ER.” Every week, I would go to my friend Charles’s house to watch. I especially loved Phoebe, Lisa Kudrow’s character on “Friends.” The first Web site I ever visited was called Phoebe’s Songbook, a fan collection of her lyrics. (I had read about it in Entertainment Weekly.) In tenth grade, I owned branded T-shirts for all three shows, and on Friday mornings I would go to school wearing the shirt corresponding to whichever show I thought had been the best the night before.

In retrospect, this is probably the most embarrassing fact I can share about my high-school years, but at the time I felt more secure in this aspect of my identity than I did in many others. The shirts were my Twitter. My fan community was Charles and me. There was something pure about my fandom, an unabashed teen longing that didn’t know to hold back. Had I waited twenty years, I would have been able to connect with a vast network of Phoebe stans. Thanks to streaming, “Friends” fandom remains a global phenomenon, particularly among millennials, who are apparently nostalgic for a world in which friends interacted over coffee instead of on Instagram. At Comic-Con, people lined up at the Warner Bros. pavilion to pose on a replica of the Central Perk sofa.

As I walked through the hall, I found myself thinking less about the negative side of fandom than about its benefits. At its core, fandom is a love story, like something out of Greek myth; it’s Pygmalion falling in love with someone else’s statue. Like romantic love, it can range from gentle companionship—cosplay and curtain fic—to deranged obsession. The psycho stalker fan is its own archetype—Robert De Niro’s Rupert Pupkin, in “The King of Comedy,” or Kathy Bates in “Misery,” based on the 1987 Stephen King thriller, about a romance-novel fanatic named Annie Wilkes, who kidnaps her favorite author and makes him tailor his latest novel to her liking.

Annie Wilkes, King told me recently, was inspired in part by Mark David Chapman, who assassinated John Lennon hours after getting his autograph. As an author, King is familiar with fan enthusiasm gone awry. “There was a lot of backlash about the way that the ‘Dark Tower’ books ended,” he told me, referring to his multipart fantasy series. “Those fans were absolutely rabid about those books.” Not long after “Misery” came out, King and his son were at a baseball game when a man broke into his house with what he said was a bomb, claiming that Annie Wilkes had secretly been based on his aunt. “My wife ran out in her bare feet and called the cops,” King recalled, “and the guy was cowering in the turret of the third floor of our Victorian home.” The bomb turned out to be a bunch of pencils in a rubber band. Still, it unnerved King: his novel about a stalker fan had summoned a stalker fan. “People have gotten invested in culture and make-believe in a way that I think is a little bit unhealthy,” King said. “I mean, it’s supposed to be fun, right?”

Many of the people I met at Comic-Con spoke about how fandom had helped them overcome adversity. One woman, dressed as Thanos, the Marvel supervillain, told me that she got into comics after her parents died, since fantasy heroes are often orphans. An I.B.M. art director said that she became a “Lost” superfan after falling out of touch with college friends; at Comic-Con, she met people who have “become part of my family.” Michael Asuncion, an aspiring psychotherapist, told me, gesturing to the crowds, “There are three needs that all people have: they want to be seen, they want to be heard, and they want to be valued.” That he was dressed as SpongeBob SquarePants did not dilute the insight.

The most anticipated event of the week was a “Game of Thrones” panel. Two days before the event, the showrunners, David Benioff and D. B. Weiss, had cancelled, ostensibly because of production scheduling. The fans, many of whom camped out overnight, were skeptical. “They probably saved themselves from getting tomatoes,” one told me.

As the crowd poured into a cavernous hall, the mood was tense, as if we were bracing for the Battle of Winterfell. Eddie Ibrahim, Comic-Con’s director of programming, welcomed everyone, then shifted his tone to that of a disappointed camp counsellor after a food fight. “One of the things I think we all love about Comic-Con so much is the fact that we all accept each other,” he said, to groans. “Think about it! We all accept each other’s fandoms. We all accept each other’s idiosyncrasies.” More groans.

Seven cast members came out. After a few warmup questions, a moderator asked about the “elephant in the room”: the finale. Conleth Hill, who played Varys the eunuch, dismissed the backlash as a “media-led hate campaign,” a phrase that instantly bounced around the Internet and enraged more fans. But, inside the hall, the mood brightened. The actors joked about the modern-day water bottle that had made an accidental cameo in the last episode. Jacob Anderson, who played Grey Worm, pulled a Spider-Man mask over his head.

The cast members were asked their favorite lines from the series, and fans cheered knowingly at the answers: “Not today,” “Hold the door,” “Nothing fucks you harder than time.” John Bradley, who played the lovable geek Samwell Tarly, chose one of his lines from the first season: “I always wanted to be a wizard.” Samwell was himself a kind of superfan within the show, poring over Westeros history and confirming fan theories about who was descended from whom. “The more you learn about Sam, the more you realize what a story that line tells about his childhood,” Bradley said. “You’re dealing with somebody whose childhood was so tough and so hard and so brutal and unforgiving that he had to create this alternative reality for himself. And he always wanted to be a wizard, because he always wanted to be something other than what he was.” The fans went wild. ♦

A previous version of this article gave an incorrect name for the group that gathers in Imperial cosplay.

Sourse: newyorker.com

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