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Can You Be Nostalgic For A Book You Never Read?

I’ve mentioned a time or two before that I love fan fiction. Even when I wasn’t in the mood for regular books, fan fiction remained a close friend. One of my earliest fandoms was Batman, which led to my long-lasting interest in the Teen Titans, which led to a more ephemeral interest in the new Outsiders comics, whose founding members included two ex-Titans.

Did I actually read any Outsiders comics? If you count looking at a handful of scanned pages posted online as “reading,” then yes. But mostly, I read the fan fiction.

If you read fan fiction, then you know it isn’t always an accurate reflection of the source material. It is a fantasy of a fantasy, invested in rooting out the character moments and possibilities that the canon glosses over. What happened between these two scenes? How did so-and-so really react to this traumatizing event? I enjoyed Outsiders fan fiction for a while and then drifted off to other fandoms, never to return. Until now! A few weeks ago, I finally decided it was time to read the series that inspired all those fics I loved.

I was not impressed.

In some ways, the series was just what I “remembered.” Traumatized by the recent death of a friend, Nightwing (Dick Grayson, Batman’s first Robin) is sick of being part of a team. However, he is soon persuaded by old buddy Arsenal (Roy Harper, Green Arrow’s first Speedy) to give the Outsiders a chance on the basis that it will be “just business” — no team bonding. Other founding members include Indigo, a robot from the future who killed the friend that Nightwing was so upset about (awkward); Grace Choi, a super-strong bouncer with a dark past; Thunder, daughter of Black Lightning, who strongly disapproves of her career choices; and Metamorpho, sort of. (Not really. Long story.)

Though the team line-up would change numerous times throughout its 50-issue run, the Outsiders’ mission remained the same: to stop criminals before they commit any crimes, no matter how far they have to go and how many lines they have to cross. And that’s where the problem lies.

Outsiders is a grim book. We see innocents incinerated, children abused in the worst ways, and beloved old characters torture criminals and threaten their friends. This is at least partly due to the time period: as Jessica Plummer noted in her excellent Identity Crisis retrospective, post-9/11 comics just tend to be cynical, paranoid, and mean. Outsiders, first published in 2003, is certainly that. Its characters are determined to solve “real” problems, but they have such a childlike understanding of those problems that I genuinely can’t tell if I’m supposed to be supporting them. Yes, go ahead and dump that Malian dictator on a deserted island! That will solve all of Mali’s problems and have no negative repercussions whatsoever!

It doesn’t help that the alleged moments of levity are really just sexual references, which I assume was writer Judd Winick’s attempt at being “adult.” (In fairness, he tones it way down as the series progresses.)

In total, I found the series gruesome, juvenile, and unpleasant…and oddly disappointing. Despite never actually reading Outsiders till now, I have fond memories of it. Now, of course, I realize just how far from the source material the fan fiction strayed (at least, the fan fiction I read). For me, reading Outsiders felt weirdly like when I rewatched a cartoon I enjoyed as a kid, only to realize it was cheap and annoying. How is that possible?

The way fans interact with entertainment media has changed drastically since the internet became popular. The internet did not invent fan fiction or fan communities, but it’s made them more accessible, more widespread, and more diverse. I can recite plots of TV episodes I’ve never seen on the basis of what I’ve read in fan fiction and social media posts. I love memes based on movies that I have no intention of ever watching. (Look at all the fucks I give, Anakin.) Until I rewatched The Wizard of Oz earlier this year, I hadn’t seen it in probably close to a couple of decades, but it didn’t feel that way at all. Why? It’s oozed into popular culture so much that I spent those intervening years steeped in jokes and references that kept the movie at top of mind. The internet has made pop culture so accessible that you don’t even have to directly access a piece of media to make it a part of you.

It even enabled me to be a fan of a book I’d never read.

Is this vicarious nostalgia good or bad? Depends on your perspective. I’m sure that gatekeeping jerks have a grand old time trying to filter “fake” fans like me out of the fandom. Internet fandoms also make spoilers ubiquitous (especially in big fandoms like DC) and more difficult to avoid. On the other hand, for people who just want to have a good time and interact with media they might not otherwise have access to, it’s a boon.

You could argue that what I’m really nostalgic for is the fan fiction, not its source material. There’s probably something to that, but at the same time, the two are inextricably intertwined. As I read through the series, I was reminded of direct quotes and specific scenes that I’d seen either in scans or filtered through the imaginations of fan fiction writers. By their definition, fanworks can’t exist without their source material, no matter how much they seek to transform it.

Would I have liked Outsiders better if I’d read it years ago? It’s hard to say. I may have had enough teen angst to appreciate what the series had to offer. Or maybe I would have been upset by how far my heroes had fallen and retreated to the comforting safety of the fan fiction.

But that’s not what I’m going to do now. I read Outsiders to scratch an old itch, nothing more. Maybe if I’d enjoyed the series, I would feel like rejoining the fandom. Instead, I am more than satisfied to once again relegate it to the realm of nostalgia.

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