Feeling Seen in Fiction: My Fandom Experience
The story of how I discovered fan culture starts with my dad, who is Superman.
Or so he likes to believe.
My dad was eight years old when he watched Christopher Reeves star in the film Superman. After watching the movie, he ran around the house, arms stretched out before him, imagining how it would feel to soar high above the clouds. He would punch neighborhood bullies, feeling like a hero. When Superman struggled with loneliness, identity, and the pressures of responsibility, the hero would always overcome these obstacles, which was very empowering for a young boy facing similar difficulties.
Superman made my dad feel seen and empowered, leading to a new hobby for him: reading comic books. Along with Superman comics, he read Justice League and the X-Men comics. He didn't have anyone to talk with about these things for a long time until he married my mother and had his three children. Then he dragged
us all down the same rabbit hole. My brother and my
dad would wake up early Sunday mornings to watch
Justice League reruns on Cartoon Network. My sister
and I would wear pink Supergirl pajamas to bed. All
three of his kids would complain about being dragged
to collectible shows, where my dad bought the newest
comics and action figures. Without realizing what was
happening, I became an expert in DC comics before
learning my address.
I had no idea what Fandom was or that it was a community at the time. When I reflect on my childhood, which was filled with superhero movies and comic books, I can only describe it as a private fandom community. This, I believe, is why I become so absorbed in fan culture. I grew up learning and witnessing the impact and power of relating to characters. I saw how discussing and criticizing a fictional world can unite a group. We are blood, but these superheroes have kept us together even when things weren’t going so well.
My dad has never heard of Fandom. And even if he were to learn how to work Instagram, he has no desire to consume fan content; being surrounded by his action figures and watching his movies provided him with enough of an escape from reality. With other people, though, that's not always the case.
I read Rick Riordan's award-winning series Percy Jackson & the Olympians when I was 12. The five books follow 12-year-old Percy Jackson struggling with ADHD and dyslexia in school. Unbeknownst to him, he is also the son of a Greek god
and is stuck in the middle of a civil war. In Percy's world,
most of his demigod friends have dyslexia and ADHD.
And according to the logic of the series, they have trouble
making sense of English because their brains are
"hard-wired for ancient Greek," and their ADHD is a
result of a heightened sense that will ultimately save
their lives in battle. A condition that serves as a point
of humiliation for Percy in the mortal world ends up
being one of his greatest strengths in the world of
Greek monsters and gods.
I hated having to read and talk when I was in elementary school. Kids made fun of how I spoke, and teachers thought all I needed to do was put in more effort. I would cry when I couldn't read the words out loud, and I would fling the book across the room in frustration. I avoided reading and talking; it wasn't worth the embarrassment of being considered stupid. But Percy and his friends learned to see themselves as more than their shortcomings. They were typical kids with extraordinary abilities, just trying to grow up in a world that was tearing itself apart.
Percy Jackson showed me I wasn't alone in my difference, making me feel seen. We were different people, but we both struggled to fit in. And when Percy found his family, a group of people who accepted him for who he was, it gave me some comfort back when I was a lonely 12-year-old.
There were no action figures of Percy and his friends, and the movie based on the books couldn't compete with the intensity of the book series. And because my family were not big readers, I couldn't go to them like I could if I saw a superhero movie. But, somehow, I discovered a plethora of fan content about Percy and his friends: fan art, fan fiction, and head-canons, all of which were conveniently available on Tumblr and Instagram.
Like Superman for my dad, Rick Riordan's series led me to a new hobby: reading young adult fiction. I didn't know what book to read after Percy Jackson, so I asked the fandom community for recommendations. I read Cassandra Claire's The Mortal Instrument series, every John Green standalone, and J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter. All were good books, but none touched my heart as Percy did, and it wasn't until I read Benjamin Alire Sáenz's queer romance Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe that I discovered a community I could relate to.
The novel follows Aristotle "Ari" Mendoza and Dante Quintana, two Mexican-American teenagers who struggle to understand who they are and where they fit in the world, a process that I, as a 16-year-old, could relate to. The novel explores the experience of Mexican-American teenagers, a demographic that I had never seen in literature before. The novel navigates the complexities of living between two cultures, capturing that feeling of belonging to both while also feeling like outsiders. As a Mexican-American teen, I, too, felt torn between my Mexican heritage and my American identity, and I had never seen this feeling portrayed anywhere outside of my home.
When I finished the book, I went on Instagram and Tumblr and searched every fan art site I could find about these boys. I then found artists who only drew fan art from books that explored the experience of demographic groups that are often underrepresented in literature. I saw fan art of Ronan and Adam, two queer characters in Maggie Stievater's Raven Cycle, and I fell in love with their story. I saw fan art of Miles Morales, a 13-year-old biracial teenager known as Spiderman, and I read his comics. Through fan art, I not only began to discover my own identity, but I also began to discover what it meant to be seen.
I felt less alone and more validated when I read books that I could relate to, and I felt seen and heard when I saw that I wasn’t alone in this feeling. Fandom has created a shared cultural experience among readers. When fans read and engage with a book or series, they became part of a community of people who share a love for that story, or for those characters. Fandom can act as a platform for creative expression and identity exploration. Fans can explore and experiment with their own identities through fan fiction, fan art, and other fan works in a supportive and collaborative setting. And while literature can challenge stereotypes by lifting the voices and experiences of marginalized and underrepresented groups, through fan culture you can spread this idea to a wider audience.
When a story ends, reaching its last lines, or its last dialogue, the characters we've held so close to our hearts are gone. Their story is over, and readers who love this world must be content with only seeing them in a single setting repeatedly. Fan art adds a new dimension to these characters, giving fans a sense of control over their world. Whatever aspect of the story resonated with them, whether it was the setting, the lore, or the characters, fan art allows fans to connect with these aspects on a deeper level that is uniquely their own.
Fandom is shaped by you, the readers, the viewers, and the fans. Seeing characters who look like them or share their experience is an inspiration to those who feel small. My dad has never been exposed to fan culture in the way that I have. He has never seen Superman drawn as a Hispanic man or has learned much about cultures outside his own. He's not interested in learning about things beyond his own world and identity. But if he had been given access to these things at a younger age, I wonder if he would have become more open to others in the world.
Readers assimilate into fictional groups because they want to feel like they have a place to call home where they can connect with other readers through relationships with their favorite fictional characters. If all the books we read are written from a white heterosexual-cis perspective, it closes the door to others, to those who don’t fit that norm, preventing them from feeling a sense of belonging.
Maybe it comes from being raised by a superhero, but there is a little bit of the “I want to save the world” in me too. That's why I created this project with the help of UC Santa Barbara’s Raab Writing Fellowship program. If I can help uplift marginalized artists and readers, I may open a door for more people like me. And I hope I am doing that in my fellowship project Fandom Lore: Finding Identity in Fandom.