Earn Your No-Prize

I would love to get back to a No-Prize fan culture.

The No-Prize was something Marvel Comics gave out starting back in the 60s. The writers and artists and editors at Marvel recognized they would make mistakes, as they were only human and often weren’t as obsessively tuned into the minutia of the books they were creating as the fans were. The No-Prize was awarded to fans who found errors in the comics – usually continuity or logic errors – and explained them away using in-universe reasoning.

Fans are given to nitpicking, because fans pay a lot of attention to what’s happening. They’re really into the stories they read/watch, and that’s why they’re fans. But the No-Prize allowed fans to take that energy – which can often be negative – and turn it into something positive. Instead of using their powers of hyper-observation to tear down the stories they loved, fans were incentivized to be cooperative with the creators and help them spackle over mistakes and goofs.

When I was a kid I got a No-Prize in the mail – it was an empty envelope. It was awesome. I don’t remember why I got it, and being an empty envelope it doesn’t tell you why you got it, but I definitely had written letters to my favorite titles, so I’m sure that at some point I had offered up an explanation of how Spidey could be in Midtown in SPECTACULAR SPIDER-MAN when X-MEN that month had clearly shown him in the Savage Land.

That nitpicking culture was once only for niche fandom, and even then it was a niche in niche fandom. But in recent years as fandom has grown, so has that niche. The nitpicking has gone mainstream – once clever musings about the state of the humanless world in the CARS movies are now hack, and everybody and their mother is complaining about the White Walkers having big chains out of nowhere. Once it was really unusual to be the kind of person who took Superman so seriously that you had come to the same conclusions Larry Niven came to in his MAN OF STEEL, WOMAN OF KLEENEX essay (for most people this discussion in MALLRATS was a revelation, for instance) but today this sort of cynical deconstruction of children’s fantasy is super common.

Grant Morrison famously said:

“Kids understand that real crabs don’t sing like the ones in The Little Mermaid. But you give an adult fiction, and the adult starts asking really fucking dumb questions like ‘How does Superman fly? How do those eyebeams work? Who pumps the Batmobile’s tires?’ It’s a fucking made-up story, you idiot! Nobody pumps the tires!”

That’s a reasonable answer on some level, but the truth is that it’s FUN to think about who pumps the Batmobile’s tires… when you’re doing it in a way that’s positive towards the story. The line is a simple one: is your deconstruction aimed at enriching the fictional universe or is it aimed at making yourself feel superior to the idiots who made a mistake/told a fantasy story that doesn’t have airtight logic?

Enriching the universe is great, and many writers have asked the “pumping the tires” question and come out the other side with great stories. Being superior… well, it’s not a great way to love something.

So for me I don’t want to sit down and complain about chains in GAME OF THRONES. I’d rather set my mind to connecting the dots in a small way that enriches my experience – I prefer to wonder what exists under that permafrost, what the White Walker kingdom looks like (do they have big chains back home they ran to the front lines?), if there are ruins nearby they could have ransacked. Maybe there’s a ship trapped in ice for 200 years from which they secured the chains. That’s cool!

I’m not saying we ignore or forgive bad character work or profoundly lazy plot devices or themes that don’t work. I’m not saying don’t be critical. I’m saying don’t confuse being intelligently critical with being a nitpicking pain in the ass. And if you’re going to be a nitpicking pain in the ass consider using those skills for good.

Let’s starting earning ourselves some No-Prizes.