Fanboy! The Strange True Story of the Tech World's Favorite Put-Down

On the cover to Fanboy (1973), 'Alfred Judson' pays, um, tribute to Edgar Rice Burroughs. Courtesy of Bhob Stewart.
Judson and Beasley were quite literally the prototypical fanboys. They also happened to be fictional characters, the creations of Jay Lynch and Glenn Bray. Lynch was the one who gave the publication its name.

Even if Lynch hadn’t had anything to do with identifying and naming fanboys, his significance as a shaper of American culture is sizable: he’s been a prominent underground cartoonist and publisher, one of the uncredited subversive masterminds responsible for Topps’ Wacky Packages and Garbage Pail Kids, and (most recently) a children’s book author.

Lynch got “fanboy” from an earlier put-down. “Funboy” was a relic of his Florida youth which popped up often in Bill Killeen’s Charlatan, a 1960s humor magazine with early work by Lynch and other soon-to-be leading lights of underground comics: Fan+funboy=fanboy. Lynch coined the word and drew the cover in 1972, although the fanzine wasn’t photocopied and distributed until 1973.

In the tech world, fanboy is a word that’s often meant to sting. Lynch says it wasn’t that way originally: “It was meant to be disparaging only in the way that Ray Nelson’s propeller beanie as the official hat of fandom was meant to be disparaging,” he explains. “Disparaging….but in a loving way.”

“Fanboy” sprung from comics culture, but Lynch intended it to apply to a mindset rather than a specific hobby from the start. In fact, the magazine’s cover poked fun at disciples of Tarzan creator Edgar Rice Burroughs–a class of overserious fan distinct from comics collectors. ”In the early days we used it not exclusively with comics….We also called sci-fi folks fanboys,” Lynch remembers. ” What it had to do with was that it was applied to people who were caught up in fantasy (as in superhero comics) rather than in reality (as in satire comics).”

The first printing of Fanboy just barely got distributed: Lynch says the press run was eleven copies. Two revised printings later in the 1970s also had minuscule circulations. Which is why Fanboy, in any of its editions, is a rare and prized collectible. (I have a good excuse for knowing nothing about Fanboy or Jay Lynch at the time: I was eight years old. But boy, was I ever already a fan of his Wacky Packages.)

In 2009, Lynch was moved to tell the tale of Fanboy and “fanboy” in a limited-edition trading card; here are its front and back (copyright (c) 2009 Jay Lynch).

Mr. Natural brushes off a fanboy in 1976.
Fanboy the magazine may have had a readership in the low dozens, but Lynch says that “from the time it was published it became part of the language of most of the cartoonists I knew. ” One of the people who latched onto the term was Lynch’s friend Robert Crumb–the most legendary underground cartoonist of them all.

After visiting Lynch in Chicago in 1976, Crumb traveled to New York and signed a contract to do a strip starring his character Mr. Natural for The Village Voice, the nation’s best-known alternative weekly. A few panels into the first Voice sequence, the bearded guru called an obsequious admirer a fanboy. As comics historian Bhob Stewart has said, the term “spread from there into various tributaries of the mainstream.”

Two uses I know I saw came in 1982, by which time I was a comic-book store habitué and quietly contemptuous of Apple II devotees. Bill Griffith, creator of Zippy the Pinhead, drew a cover for Jay Kennedy’s Official Underground and Newave Comix Guide: It showed Zippy peering in on a group of scarily obsessed comics collectors wearing “Fan Boys of America” shirts. In the same year, cartoonist/fans Jim Engel and Chuck Fiala produced Fandom Confidential, a satirical collection of fumetti (comic strips using photos instead of illustrations) starring themselves. In one panel, superstar X-Men artist John Byrne–sort of the Steve Jobs of early 1980s comic books–calls the fawning pair “fanboys in bondage” (both an early fanboy reference and a Monty Python allusion).

In these and other comics-related usages, “fanboy” remained gently satirical, not surly and accusatory. “‘Fanboy’ wasn’t a mocking term applied to comic fans by non-comic fans, it was a distinction between one type of fan and another,” remembers Engel. “Actual ‘fanboys’ then sort of adopted the term in that self-mocking ‘I’ll make fun of myself before you make fun of me’ way. Fandom Confidential was certainly me making fun of fandom, but at the same time, being an actual fan of the type I was making fun of.”

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, I hung out in the animation and comics forum of pioneering online community BIX, an offshoot of BYTE magazine. I have thousands of BIX posts salted away on my hard drive, so I can confirm that we used the word “fanboy” often–but usually in a genteel fashion. (In one 1991 post, I brought it up–using it in quotes, as if I wasn’t quite sure it was a real word–and wondered who’d invented it.)

By then, I owned an Amiga computer, and was prone to prickliness when users of Atari’s ST line fatheadedly contended that their machines were superior to mine. But it still didn’t occur to me to call them fanboys.

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