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In the past, I’ve devoted space in this column to discussing the negative stereotype people have of people who read comics, that image of the “fanboy.” Similarly, I’ve spent some time analyzing the potential for negativity in online message boards. In both cases, I expressed my fear that non-comics readers might think these few examples represented all of comics readership and thus they could be potentially harmful to the cause of comics advocacy. Well, let me today tell a story that I feel flies in the face of these images.

About two months ago, one of the largest communities of comics fans on the Web, the Brian Michael Bendis section of the Image message boards, fell on hard times. It seems that certain members of the board were going into their own private community elsewhere and making comments about other members of the board that were, at the very least, highly inappropriate and offensive. At most, they were criminal.

When people found out about the comments, Bendis’s board briefly turned into a witch hunt, with many members trying to find out who these few posters that had said these horrible things were and in the process blaming anyone who was even a part of this smaller private community, guilt by association. The news spread to other message boards, getting them in an uproar, and suddenly lots of outsiders were getting involved. Eventually Bendis, afraid that his name would become associated with these horrible statements, shut down his boards, possibly for good.

What was said to cause such a scandal, you might ask? Who were the offending parties? Those things are not important and best left unsaid, so as to avoid drudging all of this misery back up. What is significant instead is how the fans reacted after the fact.

What happened next is nothing short of miraculous. The injured parties of the scandal convinced Bendis to reopen his boards, to not let a few malcontents ruin it for everyone else. The offending parties were banned from the boards, and when the community returned, it rallied. Placing all of their recent difficulties in the past, the board instantly became as active as ever, with a much more positive attitude and a greater sense of community, which they quickly demonstrated at Wizard World Chicago.

It just so happened that the date of the convention in Chicago fell very, very close to the birthday of Bendis, the writer whose works this community was built around. Before the board was temporarily shut down, many of the board members had been planning on attending the convention, so as to meet their idol Bendis there. They pressed on with their plans after the fact, not willing to let the unpleasant situation get them down. Instead the people of the board decided to do what they could to show Bendis their love and support. And what better way to show your affection for a person on his birthday than by throwing him a surprise party?

Secret messages were thrown about the board to various people that would be in attendance at the convention, as they tried to organize this surprise. Decisions were being made by this group of people about how to best catch him off-guard, where and when would be the best opportunity to do it, and what the surprise should entail. Once decisions had been made, the plan was set into motion by various members, each working on their own to complete some of the small tasks necessary to pull it off. Marvel editor-in-chief Joe Quesada was brought in on the plan, via various e-mails, and he was more than willing to help out.

Then at the Marvel panel the Saturday of the con, the plan was carried into fruition. Fans of Bendis lined up early to get into the panel and stake out their appointed places. A few met with Quesada and Mark Millar to finalize how the surprise would be presented. A lookout was stationed down the hall to let people know when Bendis was coming, so as to avoid his finding out about what was going on and spoiling the surprise.

Finally it was time. During the question and answer portion of the panel, one audience member posed a set-up question, asking Bendis how he felt about being replaced on Avengers by Millar. Quesada acted flabbergasted, yelling at Millar for letting the info slip. Millar claimed he must have said something while drunk in the pub the night before. In the midst of all this, Bendis was perplexed, until another member of the audience suggested everyone calm down by singing a song. Suddenly, several members of the panel, and about half the audience, started singing “Happy Birthday” to Bendis, as two audience members walked down the aisle with a cake for him.

The candles were blown out, and kept relighting. Bendis was presented with a card, signed by many members of his message boards. He also received a gag gift, a guide to grammar and punctuation to help him overcome his penchant for typos. The plan went off without a hitch, and in the end, it was one of the most impressive outpourings of affection I have ever witnessed fans show for their hero.

I tell you all of this not to toot my own horn, for I claim no involvement in any of the preparation for this event. I did not procure the cake. I did not set the surprise up with Quesada and Millar. I did not get the card and organize the signing of it. The best I can say is that when the cardholder’s pen was proving difficult for signing purposes, I loaned my pen out so that people could continue to sign it.

Instead I tell you all of this to show what community really means. That the Bendis boards could be brought to their knees by a scandal and then rise back up in such a spectacular display is nothing short of amazing. They didn’t let these negative feelings define who they were, instead burying that image and creating a new, much more positive one for themselves. The respect and affection that was shown for Bendis that day should stand to us all as a perfect example of how we as fans should behave. A year from now no one will remember the uproar even happened, whereas this surprise will live on in people’s memories for quite some time.

And I tell you this, of course, as a tool for comics advocacy. The next time you hear someone perpetuating a negative stereotype of comics fans, I want you to tell that person this story. This story is the true heart of comics fandom, not the image of the geek obsessed with minute trivia, snobbish and overweight. This is what comics fans are really all about, and I highly doubt people could still think ill of us, still not want to be a part of our community, after they heard such a story.

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