‘Fangirl,’ Fanfiction, and Fandom | Conversation
Viz launched its Originals line — dedicated to comic works that aren’t translated from the Japanese — with an adaptation of Rainbow Rowell’s novel Fangirl. The graphic novel is part 1 of 4, adapted by Sam Maggs, and illustrated by Gabi Nam.
Librarian Robin Brenner and critic Johanna Draper Carlson had a conversation about the book.
JDC: I loved the novel, even though I read it before I had much direct experience with fan fiction or fan culture. I was looking forward to an excuse to re-read it now that that has changed, and the original graphic novel was a great reason to do so. Now that I understand better the wait for works-in-progress and the serotonin bump of hits and kudos, several of the references went deeper for me, making me more sympathetic. What’s your background with the book and transformative works?
RB: Confession time: I’ve been a fannish consumer since the late 90s. I first really dove into fanfiction right before college (back when I had to dial in via AOL, to date myself), and fandom has been a consistent treasure trove of stories and commentary for me ever since. I am a Fandom Old, in that sense.
JDC: Hey, I used to run AOL chats for DC Comics. No judgment here! But my fandoms at that time were knowledge- and collection-based, not encouraging of creative or spin-off works. The idea that you can tell your own stories with the characters, and what writers and readers got from that experience, only came to me a couple of years ago.
RB: I was working as a teen librarian when Rainbow Rowell hit big with her debut novel, Eleanor & Park. When Fangirl hit the shelves I was intrigued and excited about what she would do with fandom, fanfic, and a coming-of-age story. If you’ve been in fandom, it’s easier to spot authors who have clearly come from fannish activities. Many now will just state that upfront, while others are more circumspect about any involvement in fandom. With Rowell, I wasn’t sure how much she had been involved in fandom. I was bracing for a take that felt at least dismissive or at worst vilifying. When it was originally published in 2013, very few fictional narratives about fandom were 1) positive or 2) resonated with people within fandom.
In YA literature, there is a larger and larger collection of titles that highlight the type of growing up that happens after high school graduation. For a long time YA cut off at 18. This always felt bit artificial since readers read up, with 16-year-olds already reading titles aimed at adults. I appreciate that Fangirl covers the kind of second coming-of-age that many have when they leave home and have to be more independent, whether that be at college or out in the world on their own.
When it comes to adaptations, I’m skeptical unless they are clearly being created by artists who really love and adore the source material. In that sense, Fangirl is on solid ground, given that they matched a solid artist to tackle what comics do so well — the reactions, emotions, silences, and significant glances that make stories like Fangirl resonate.
JDC: I couldn’t resist doing a direct comparison, and I was surprised at how much from the novel made it onto the comic page.The graphic novel gives us just about a quarter of the book by page count (which matches the four-volume release plan for the adaptation) and ends on a well-chosen cliffhanger.
I thought the insight into Cath’s mind and feelings might be left out, but her interior monologues are handled with captions. The only major change I noted was that Reagan (the roommate) and Levi (her friend) have cigarettes in the book, and those are gone (good).
RB: I found the fact that they are taking four volumes to tell the story refreshing, in that far too many adaptations try to take a 400-500 page novel and cram it into 200 pages of comics. This is especially true if the creators are relying on the conventions of manga for art, as manga excels at taking more pages to ensure all the emotional beats are hit, and cutting pages would have really diminished this story, given how much happens in Cath’s head and heart.
I admit it’s been a while since I’ve read the novel, but that doesn’t surprise me that the cigarettes have been taken out (however true to life it may be). In general, I was pleased with the translation into comics — the character design feels in keeping with both the novel and with manga-style conventions in a way that marries the two instead of feeling jarring.
My one hesitation was the portrayal of Reagan’s body — I kept trying to decide how svelte she was supposed to be. Manga-style art has a rather terrible track record on showing folks with larger bodies who are not comics relief, so there were a few moments where I felt like her body was fluctuating in size a bit to telegraph that she wasn’t a twig, but was still sexy and confident, and I’m not certain the art fully pulled that off for me.
JDC: One of the most memorable scenes is the confrontation between the professor and Cath when she turns in fanfic for a story assignment. Most fic writers I know wouldn’t even dare, but the ones I know are older and well remember the days of pseudonyms and not mentioning the hobby in public. I suspect younger writers are more open about that, but with that comes a certain brashness about other people’s creations. What was your take?
RB: More confession time: I was a Creative Writing major at a small liberal arts college, and I more or less did that same move in my college creative writing class, without quite consciously realizing what I was doing. (It was not as readily apparent that it was a fannish work, but…it was, dear reader, it was.) So…you could say that I have a lot of feelings about that scene!
That is one thing I do wonder about both the original novel and this adaptation: The way fandom is viewed in this story, novel or here, is now dated. As you noted, when I was first in fannish circles, it was desperately secret and everyone had pseudonyms, writers and readers alike. It always felt like there was a secret codebreaking that happened to identify other fannish people in real life.
Today, fandom and creators’ connections to their own and other fandoms are visible. Creators are much more likely to proclaim connections to it (even if, for copyright reasons, they have to be careful). However, I think the debate around what is “real” writing and what is not considered original work is still raging, and there are many, many different takes.
No doubt, in this case, Cath didn’t do the assignment, and like any artist who learns through copying (see fine art, copying the masters), eventually writers have to learn the distinctions. I would be curious to find out if creative writing departments have become more inclusive of fannish works. While I assume awareness of fanfic is higher, I would doubt that professors would encourage students to turn in fanfiction for assignments, and I would actually guess most young fic writers themselves are more aware of the line between original work and fannish work.
Both from the novel, and from this adaptation, the questions of fanfic and original work just being different kinds of writing, for different purposes, is explored fairly deftly. We’ll have to wait until the later volumes before it’s fully explored, but I feel encouraged that the manga will handle it as well as the novel did.
My one bone to pick with this version of fandom is that her online friends are very distant to the point of not being people she turns to for support, venting, or encouragement. Wren being Cath’s main co-writer and editor makes her fic writing more based in her family life, but the off note about the depiction of fandom and fannish creators in the novel and this adaptation is how few online friends Cath seems to have made despite being a BNF (big name fan).
While not everyone has lifelong friends through fandom (especially now, when the forums fandom exists in are less conducive to commenting and discussion), many many fic writers DO have substantial and important online friendships that buoy them through writing. It felt very odd that someone who was solitary but visible in such a popular fandom wouldn’t have made significant and important friends through betas (editors) and other fannish folks.
JDC: That’s an excellent point. I wouldn’t have kept writing fic after taking a brief flyer on it if not for the encouragement of close friends I have developed through fandom discussion groups and comments, as you mention. She seems to be a writer without being a public fan, almost, as she doesn’t seem to participate in chat groups or boards or whatever option is popular at the time.
It’s also a strange choice, perhaps, for Viz, a manga publisher, to launch their Originals line with an adaptation of another work that has nothing to do with manga.
RB: I also find it interesting that this is the title that seems to be launching the VIZ Originals line. Rowell is a definite force in publishing, especially with the recent wrapping up of the spin-off novel series Carry On. (AKA her fanfic of her original fannish creation within Fangirl’s pages. Why yes, my Youth Services department does have a full size standee of Baz, why do you ask?) The Carry On series has been enormously popular among teen and adult readers alike. If you’re going to adapt a property, it’s not a bad one to pick (and I do wonder how long it will be until we get an announcement of a full on Carry On manga adaptation…).
Fangirl excels in digging into the stresses around adjusting to college life, sibling rivalry and distinction, dealing with anxiety and mental health (especially in relation to the twins’ dad), and balancing wanting to reach out to people while hanging on to what makes you…you. I always say I became a teen librarian because during your teen years, when you’re figuring out both who you are and who you’re not, the right story at the right time has a huge impact.
Fangirl is another example of that — Cath is still figuring out who she is, and who she isn’t, and the whole story is about her navigating that as both a person and as a writer. Fandom helps and hinders in that journey, which I think is realistic depiction. I also see why this is a very manga story — and reminds me favorably of titles like Fumi Yoshinaga’s Flower of Life and Akiko Higashimura’s Princess Jellyfish. How did it work for you as a manga? Or manga-style, at least?
JDC: I can certainly see the similarity in audience. I kept thinking of OEL manga such as Dramacon while reading it. It seems to me that the best comics about fandom have come out of manga or from manga-influenced creators. Perhaps because they’re more established when it comes to developing new properties instead of continually serving the same franchises.
Volume 2 is due next June. It requires quite a lot of patience to follow the story this way.
RB: No doubt! Many of our manga and comics readers are more and more aware of how long it takes to get the next volume, even if they are impatient. At least in this case they have a lot of related media to dive in to — the novel, the Carry On series, the audiobooks — and of course, there’s always fanfic to tide you over.
Filed under: All Ages
Johanna Draper Carlson has been reviewing comics for over 20 years. She manages ComicsWorthReading.com, the longest-running independent review site online that covers all genres of comic books, graphic novels, and manga. She has an MA in popular culture, studying online fandom, and was previously, among many other things, webmaster for DC Comics. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin.
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