Fandom can mean many things to many people. It can be a source of solace and camaraderie for those who once had none. It can be a way to kill time or a different mode of enjoying your favorite shows. I've previously written about how I learned about shipping on the Farscape message boards in the early 00s, but that early foray into fandom also introduced me to something else: fanworks.
On those boards, I learned about creative expression of fandom, that I could enjoy my favorite things by contributing to the enjoyment of others. I could write fanfiction and people would read it. I could create fanart and people would see it, digital art and they would use it. It was an ego stroking, to be sure, but while I was feeling good about myself it turned out I was also developing new skills. I was learning to construct a narrative by writing fanfiction, learning to use programs like Photoshop and to edit video, all of which would serve me well years later when I entered college and eventually the workforce. But as a young teenager, I wasn't doing anything special. I was just showing my love for my favorite television shows.
Fandom, especially expression of that fandom through various types of fanworks, has this inherent ability to almost accidentally teach us valuable, marketable skills. I'm far from the only person to have this experience. Fanfiction, for example, has been helping aspiring authors develop their craft for decades, and has famously led to the emergence of some of the more popular writers and works of fiction in recent memory. Authors like Cassandra Clare, Marissa Meyer, Meg Cabot and Andy Weir all cut their teeth writing in other people's worlds before they ever published a word for their own.
But not everyone makes a famous name for themselves based on their fandom-acquired skills. Most people are just content to go about their lives, developing skills and padding their resumes, likely never letting others know that they really gained those skills thanks to their love of Star Trek or My Little Pony or Sailor Moon.
Back in the late 90s/early 00s, one of the biggest trends for young fans looking to express their love — and show off their knowledge — was to start their very own fansite. Free hosting services like Geocities and Angelfire allowed folks the opportunity to get their fansite up and running with no overhead (and no credit card), and the emergence of software like Dreamweaver meant building a simple HTML homepage could be done quickly and easily. I made my first fansite in 2002 when I was 13-years-old and an embarrassingly obsessive fan of the show Charmed. It was expansive, with character and episode guides, news, a spell book, and the all-important hit counter and guestbook. It was also ugly as sin and nearly impossible to read — because when you're first learning to do something, you want to throw in everything at once. Even though I lacked design skills, I was learning to code without ever really setting out to do so. It was basic HTML and eventually some CSS, but it was more than most of my friends knew, and it was a desirable skill for the adults who would eventually hire me years later. I was far from the only one.
“When I discovered the internet, I also discovered there were a few comic artists with their own sites. Some even had message boards where they interacted with fans and aspiring artists, sharing art tips with the latter,” says Katie Willaert. “One of my favorite artists at the time was former X-Men artist Joe Madureira, who’d recently started a creator-owned series called Battle Chasers (now a video game). One day, in those pre-Google days, I was Ask Jeeves’ing and discovered a Battle Chasers fansite, and there was something about the design that immediately struck me. I immediately wanted to figure out how to design like this, and decided I’d create a fansite for WildStorm artist Travis Charest in a similar style.”
Willaert’s interest in web design might not have netted her fame and fortune, but it did help guide her career path. She started out working on a volunteer basis for fansites and forums until eventually, she headed off to college to major in graphic design. Today, she puts all of those skills to use in her work at FUN.com as a UI/UX designer, and she even gets to utilize her comics knowledge to create infographics that have been picked up all over the internet.
“I’d known really early on that I'd wanted to be a published writer, so in high school another friend and I took the computer classes that allowed us to learn java and website building so that we had somewhere to post all of our work — mostly Ranma 1/2, Gundam Wing, Fushigi Yuugi and even some of our original pieces,” Elena Ybarra tells SYFY Fangrrls. “All of the mailing lists we'd joined at that time to share our work and read that of others are long gone, but I remember specifically figuring out how to join a POP3 server just so I could get around the site restrictions at school. We also printed off a ton of fic on the dot matrix printers our classroom still used, so we could read it in between classes or in quiet moments, and I still have a lot of that stashed away to this day. But we were proud of our own site - we learned how to code mouse-overs all sorts of fun little things to make it our haven. It was neat being able to link the sites of others and to be linked in turn on theirs.”
Fanfiction is still a huge part of creative expression in fandom, and while the emergence of social media has largely paved over the world of fansites, some still find ways to put their coding skills to use customizing their Tumblrs and the like. But writing and coding might not be immediately marketable. You can't sell a fanfic, but writing isn't the only way to express your love for your favorite character. That's where fanart comes in.
For Amanda Wong, learning HTML was just the first step to a larger goal she didn’t know she had at the time. Wong spent the late-90s interacting with the fandoms for Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Batman: The Animated Series, and Cybersix. It’s that last one, though, that introduced her to her most marketable skills.
“I think Cybersix at the time worked as a gateway for me to seek other Photoshop tutorials and from there, I branched out to learning more about animation as a career and a field that I could be passionate about,” says Wong, speaking to SYFY Fangrrls. “There was a forum where most of the other fans were also budding artists and we formed a fledgling community to support each other, share fanart, and share tips and links on how to improve. I think it was the community support, more than anything, that created emotional ties to my hobby of drawing and digital painting because posting art for each other was a way to build my online friendship with the other fans.”
Because of these skills she developed in order to express her love for a little Canadian-Japanese animated show, Wong has managed to work her way up in the animation industry in Vancouver, even gaining a credit on the My Little Pony movie.
Those fans who might be a little better with their hands have found countless ways to adapt various crafts to their fandoms, spanning everything from crochet to oven mitts.
“Over the last seven years I've been crocheting little superheroes/pop culture characters and scattering them around San Diego Comic Con for strangers to find when I fly out there,” says Cindy Wang, who goes by The Geeky Hooker online. Her crochet creations span fandoms from comics to video games and Stranger Things to historical figures. “Incorporating my fandoms into my work has been a HUGE reason why I enjoy it so much. I may have still started crocheting on my own, but I don't think I would've kept up as much if it weren't for the fun pop culture influences that go into my work.”
And that work has offered her some brand new and unexpected opportunities — for instance, a book deal. Literary Yarns, her book of crochet patterns for some classic literature characters, is available now from Quirk Books.
Things get even more interesting the further you fall down this fandom rabbit hole. Recent additions to the world of collectibles have offered brand new opportunities for fans to do a little artistic expression and pick up new skills along the way — like creating their very own, custom versions of the popular Funko Pop! line of toys.
“I learned to make custom Funko Pops for The Expanse!” says S Marie on Twitter. “We had no merchandise and it was exciting to come up with a way to honor some of our favorite characters. I got really lucky with the fanbase, they're all supportive and encouraging, not to mention full of creative and artistic people to give advice and ideas.”
Coming together as a community is an inherent part of fandom. Those communities are important to the people within them. They provide friendships and safe places to express a love of something that might otherwise get them ridiculed. But these fandoms also provide inspiration for creative pursuits. When you're first learning a skill, you don't always know where to start, and characters and stories from movies and tv and books and comics can provide some much-needed fodder.
“I really feel like the online friends I made through the Cybersix fandom were my first stable group of friends,” says Wong. “It is certainly possible that I could have ended up in this career on my own, as drawing had always been a hobby of mine, but I really think I would not have developed my skills the way that I did without the support of this online community.”
So the next time someone tells you you're wasting your time talking to people online about your favorite show, don't worry. You might just be a moment away from inspiration that could change your life.