“I Love You 3000” – Paige, Letamendi, Slott & Gillen On Managing Real Feelings About Fictional Characters
by Noah Sharma
On Friday of New York Comic Con, Michelle Jaworski (staff writer and media critic for the Daily Dot) introduced a panel of feels experts — including Danielle Paige (Stealing Snow, Mera: Tidebreaker), Dr. Andrea Letamendi (clinical psychologist, Associate Director of Mental Health for Res Life at UCLA, and host of the Arkham Sessions podcast), Dan Slott (Fantastic Four, Tony Stark Iron Man, Amazing Spider-Man), and Kieron Gillen (The Wicked and the Divine, Phonogram, Young Avengers) — to discuss the connection between fans and their media.
Jaworski started the panel by asking for the first memory of popular culture that broke the panelists’ heart. Jaworski offered Cedric Diggory as the first one she could really process. Paige thought E.T. was dead for a few minutes and bawled, with Gillen seconding the emotion. Letamendi recalled an episode of Punky Brewster where Cherie nearly died after being trapped in a refrigerator and went through all the emotions with her. Dan Slot, ever on brand, recalled reading a reprint of the death of Captain Stacy in Amazing Spider-Man #90 and having to reconcile that you can do everything right and still fail.
Dr. Letamendi explained that these strong, personal reactions to fictive tragedies are a phenomenon known as parasocial interactions, that is relationships that people develop with subjects that are not real or not present to engage in those relationships. PSIs actually approximate real emotions and are not necessarily lesser than a personal loss, depending on the nature of the relationship. This has grown even more complicated in the digital age, where people may form parasocial relationships with people who do reciprocate or engage in some way through the internet. Slot asked if video games and immersive media increased the likelihood or strength of para-social relationships. Dr. Letamendi said that media and actions, such as video games or cosplay, that put a person in the role of a character have been shown to strengthen parasocial bonds by creating identification and empathy with characters.
Slot was invited to the set of the Amazing Spider-Man #2 in mid 2013. Slot was very excited to meet Andrew Garfield. It’s not surprising to look forward to meeting the star of a favorite film franchise (it seems likely that Slot had a parasocial relationship with both Garfield, Peter Parker, and Garfield’s rendition of the character), but the experience revealed the other side of that coin. Garfield approached Slot, dressed in the Spider-Man suit without the mask, and the first thing he said to the writer was “so I’m dead now!?” Slot compared it to how you refer to people “hitting you” when you get into an accident, rather than acknowledging the car.
Dr. Letamendi spoke a little bit about how PSIs don’t even have to be with a character directly. She pointed to the outrage at a franchise like Star Wars, where it was not the death of a character but the death of their perception of the franchise or their perception of ownership of the franchise.
Slot was quick to sing the praises of fan fiction, especially when official stories don’t do what you feel they should.
Talking about fandom tattoos, Gillen said that, from the beginning he tried to warn WicDiv fans off from getting permanently attached to what he viewed as fundamentally tragic characters. “You may not like them 30 issues on.”
Jaworski talked about the death of the ending in media, where individual threads may end but strong selling IP is almost certain to expand into prequels and sequels and side stories. That can mean that content creators have to invest their audience in characters whose largest story has already been told or whose fate is already known. She compared this to The Wicked and the Divine, where, even being ‘new’ characters, readers knew that the entire cast would die.
In much of his work, Gillen is very concerned about the “buy-in”. What you don’t want is for readers to reject your premise or, by extension, feel betrayed by the direction of the story and that can mean creating appropriate expectations for your audience. Even more importantly in the case of WicDiv, the transparency with the premise served as a safety warning for readers entering a story about a group of predominantly queer characters that, by their nature, will all end up dead by the time it’s over. There were even issues where he probably could have written stronger endings if he ended on a cliffhanger but wasn’t comfortable letting people believe that misdirect for a month, calling it “abusive” writing.
On the other hand, Star Wars also features many, many characters whose deaths are already canonized. Gillen strove to tell stories that fit into the gaps in the current narrative without descending into marginalia, saying that he viewed the series as a historical story. The most obvious example was on his Darth Vader series, where Gillen noted both the change in the presentation of Darth Vader between Episodes IV and V (which, behind the scenes, represented Vader becoming too popular to remain in the role of an outsider among the Empire, as George Lucas had intended, and being promoted to replace Moff Tarkin as the face of the antagonists) as well as the added significance of the Death Star in the Empire’s plan that was introduced in Clone Wars-era stories. This left both Vader and the Empire at large in a rarely commented upon position of weakness, with Gillen describing Vader as a somewhat disgraced survivor of the largest military disaster in history. Combining this with Vader’s realization that he has a son, Gillen used these plot threads as the basis of a fall and rise of Darth Vader story that formed the backbone of his run. The philosophy exemplified by this experience was to balance what is present but only implicit and what fans want to see, providing a story that is both exciting to fans but also does not conflict too dramatically with the work as it has existed, risking dissonance in the parasocial relationship.
Apparently a noted Game of Thrones fan, Taylor Swift was asked about the series’ controversial ending in a recent Rolling Stone interview and described the end of a piece of serialized media like a breakup, with levels of amicability but significant distress regardless. Jaworski asked how the panelists deal with their ‘breakups’. Slot wondered what will happen when George R.R. Martin releases his version of the ending, noting that, especially if it isn’t universally beloved, fans will have to chose what to accept. He said he understands that feeling, having loved the 2003 reimagining of Battlestar Galactica, but disavowing the final season. Slot spoke about the nebulous rules of headcanon and how that way of thinking has become increasingly mainstream with reboots and other revivals that replace or slot into the space of other pieces of media, potentially overwriting previous canon. It’s a process that he sees as legitimate but fundamentally no different than directors aligning things with their headcanons. Slot also mentioned an unnamed Spider-Man writer who doesn’t read any of the character’s adventures after their run, believing that their Peter Parker’s story was told and completed and wanting the space to live with that. Slot finds that fair. He had a similar experience when he was done writing the Batman Adventures, though he admits that where he chooses to have that space and where he continues to read is fairly arbitrary.
Letamendi agreed with Swift, saying that, during the 2007 writer’s strike, researchers began to study the discontent among viewers and coined the term para-social breakups. With stories developing in ways that were unexpected and, to many eyes, of lesser quality, researchers noticed a real anger and feeling of betrayal among numerous fandoms.
Letamendi even pointed to a parasocial relationship of her own, which the Marvel Cinematic Universe cast. Many times after watching Avengers: Infinity War, friends would tell her that it was ok because the characters were sure to come back. “I know,” she would reply, “but it’s the sense of they don’t know that they’ll come back” which was a very interesting distinction to me. I wonder how much this makes a difference, it makes a certain sense, but I can’t help but feel as though many of us would feel just as distressed even if that weren’t the case.
Slot also pointed out that there are different experiences and expectations for these stories. We all have comic book friends who know that death is cheep, but there are some movie-goers who really believe that characters are gone for good. The most extreme example was the story of a young fan named Max.
Max was little in 2013, but he loved Spider-Man so, even though he couldn’t read, he would turn the pages while his dad read the comics to him. So it was that Max’s dad realized that they were killing Spider-Man with his child on his lap and freaked out. The idea that Marvel could end their flagship title with the death of Peter Parker was outrageous to him but little Max stopped him and told him ‘Dad, Spider-Man’s gonna be ok.’ Slot received a letter telling him about the experience shortly thereafter and took it as evidence that fans, even very young fans, could understand that this story wouldn’t change their relationship with Spider-Man. Unfortunately, the story didn’t end there.
Slot got to meet Max and his father at a signing half a year later and was ecstatic to meet his littlest fan. Max had just come from little league, still in uniform, and was too shy to talk to the man who wrote his Spider-Man comics, but his dad explained that he loved Superior Spider-Man and refused to go home and change for fear of missing Slot. Eventually Max started opening up and talking to Slot as he signed his stack of love-worn comics. Looking to connect, Slot asked who his favorite character was and Max was unambiguous. He loved Ghost Pete and could wait to see how he was going to get his body back. It was at this moment that Slot reached the final comic, a pristine copy of Superior Spider-Man #9, just bought, and started to have a bad feeling. You see, that’s the issue where the Superior Spider-Man erases Ghost Pete…
Max showed up again about a half hour later, still in his uniform, with snot running from his nose and lip quivering.
“Did you read it?”
Max’s dad said that he wanted to ask Mr. Slot a question.
His voice was very faint, recalled Slot.
“What’s your question?”
“IT’S MYSTERIO RIGHT? GHOST PETE’S OK!?”
So Slot had to take this crying boy in a baseball uniform and explain how sometimes bad things happen to good people and, even when Peter does everything right, sometimes people get hurt, just like he had learned with Captain Stacy all those years before.
It didn’t work.
Max’s dad thanked Slot for taking the time and people on line told him that he did good. “No, I did not.”
Jaworski asked about that fan outrage and distress when a series doesn’t go the way they think and how it changes when the media in question is your work. “I’m better at my emotional boundaries than I have been previously,” said Gillen.
Gillen spoke about safety proofing his stories and protecting them against bad faith readings. Gillen has striven to look at his stories and examine them for bad faith readings so he can remove them. Many times he has added or removed lines of dialogue to prevent misunderstandings and intentional misappropriation of his work, giving as an example Prodigy in Young Avengers who could have been read to have absorbed someone else’s bisexuality rather than having realized something intrinsic to himself through his superpowered experiences. The next line Gillen wrote was an explicit refutation of that homophobic reading. Slot, having had a sometimes more adversarial relationship with some of his fans, felt that bad faith readings are inevitable and Gillen conceded that lampshading and refuting the negative interpretation was not enough to stop some people from taking the story that way. Despite this, Gillen feels that its important to give those reading in good faith every assurance of what you meant and clear and explicit ways to argue what is and isn’t happening if they chose to. Gillen’s mantra on the panel was “all fan responses are valid” and, as part of that, he felt that it was his responsibility as the writer to ensure that his work was never “abusive” to his readers or possessed of “fair” misreadings that were likely to distress them.
Slot disagrees but understands when fans tell him that he doesn’t understand Peter Parker, but the wild thing is when people say he doesn’t understand characters that he created.
In one of the stranger parasocial relationships, Jaworski looked at the Sony/Disney dispute and how people showed parasocial connections to the companies. Slot noted that it goes even one step farther, just as many had virulent reactions against Sony, some have now had vindication that Tom Holland stepped in in favor of Spider-Man staying in the MCU, with fans seeing this as Spider-Man himself coming down on their side.
Slot noted that there are certain properties that he tries not to get involved in for various reasons. Some it’s because he’s not ready to have parasocial interactions with those fans, or rather for those fans to have parasocial interactions with him.”How many of you guys feel bad saying you like Rick and Morty,” Slot asked. He admitted that he loves Rick and Morty but he can’t say so the same way since he’s seen what the fandom has done.
The other side of it is that sometimes you just don’t want to see how the sausage is made. Slot has generally put a soft ban on himself working on Star Trek, preferring to let that be one place where he can be a fan first. Slot and Gillen agreed that you can’t necessarily “turn the writer off” though. Gillen specifically admitted that he couldn’t bring himself to hate the end of Game of Thrones so much as he needed to figure out why and how it was inefficiently done.
Letamendi wound down the panel by acknowledging that para-social relationships are natural and healthy. So long as you’re not lashing out or feeling truly distraught, having these connections are part of our modern day human condition, there’s no escaping PSIs anymore. What’s more, PSIs are not necessary evils, but potentially valuable experiences that can lead to fulfilling connections and help us deal with loss and other significant emotions in what she calls our “terrestrial” lives. Dr. Letamendi stressed that she doesn’t want to see people start to feel shame for having these emotions.
Paige has been burned by her parasocial relationships many times (to this day the word LOST can make her curse), but being on both sides of the creative table has given her a certain appreciation for the connection that develops between audience and media. Gillen remembered seeing the reaction to Leah’s story in Journey Into Mystery. It was the first time that something he wrote seemed to make the entire internet upset and his wife figured that he must be happy for making people feel on that scale. He was, but it was a very conflicting feeling, it didn’t feel flatly good. “It depends on what emotion you’re making people feel,” said Slot. There were many happy-sad cries coming out of his Silver Surfer run that was different from how people were sad to read Amazing Spider-Man #700.
The first questioner asked about the responsibility of writing marginalized identities, particularly identities that die and are killed at dramatically higher rates in real life. Gillen reiterated his feelings about how buy-ins and how they can function as trigger warnings and about the difference between shock deaths and deaths fans know are coming. He also spoke about the natural ecosystem that continues to propagate queer death, with new characters being created in supporting roles that are more likely to die in order to correct imbalances of diversity in beloved universes and the patterns that creates.
Slot also pointed out that writers are frequently getting notes that seek to increase drama and play up the traditional rule of storytelling. Often this can mean killing your darlings or preventing writers to not be too precious with minority characters who need to have flaws and problems like anyone else. However, especially when you’re writing outside of your experience, it can be easy to forget that treating marginalized characters “like everyone else” can neglect the specific contexts that people of that experience face and having fans to advocate and elucidate these things can better the work significantly.
Gillen noted, “I mean, y’know, I’m not straight and I know a lot of creators who aren’t, they also can make the same mistakes but they do it in often different ways.” He pointed out that, especially in cases of inadequate representation, you often find yourself dealing with very particular elements of a person being reflected in characters and that can lead to very powerful and particular parasocial relationships that a writer really cannot predict or control.
A questioner who works in theater asked about fan reactions when the fandom doesn’t necessarily understand the business side of the media they ingest. The panelists were united in agreement that comics sales numbers are frequently brought up without context, ignoring who the sale was to, when it was made relative to release, whether the book was returnable, and so on. Gillen pointed out that an engaged fandom should, hopefully, be a well informed fandom, if only to be able to focus their anger on the right targets.
Slot compared it to an old Yiddish joke: A woman gets her husband two ties for his birthday, one red and one blue. The next day the husband decides to show his wife how much he appreciates the gift and wears the blue tie immediately. He comes down for breakfast and shows off his outfit to his wife who replies “what, you don’t like the red tie?”