I’ve mentioned once or twice that I love fanfiction. Even when I wasn’t in the mood for regular books, fanfiction 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 short-lived interest in the new Outsiders comics, which included two ex-Titans among its founding members.

Did I actually read Outsiders comics? If you consider a handful of scanned pages published online as “reads” then yes. But mostly I read the fan fiction.

If you read fanfiction you know that this is not always an accurate reflection of the source material. It is a fantasy of a fantasy invested in eradicating the moments and possibilities of character that canon glosses over. What happened between those two scenes? How did so and so really react to this traumatizing event? I enjoyed Outsiders fanfiction for a while and then moved on to other fandoms never to come back. Until now! A few weeks ago I finally decided it was time to read the series that inspired all of the fics I loved.

I wasn’t impressed.

In a way, the show was exactly what I “remembered” about. Nightwing (Dick Grayson, Batman’s first Robin) is traumatized by the recent death of a friend and tired of being part of a team. However, he is soon persuaded by old pal Arsenal (Roy Harper, Green Arrow’s first Speedy) to give the underdogs a chance on the basis that it will be “just a deal” – no team bond. Other founding members include Indigo, a robot from the future who killed the friend Nightwing was so upset about (awkward); Grace Choi, a super powerful bouncer with a dark past; Thunder, daughter of Black Lightning, who strongly rejects her career choice; and Metamorpho, kind of. (Not really. Long story.)

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Although the line-up of the team would change several times during the 50-issue run, the Outsiders’ mission remained the same: to stop criminals before they commit crimes, no matter how far they have to go and how many lines they have to cross. And here is the problem.

Outsiders is a dark book. We see innocents burned, children abused in the worst possible ways, and beloved old characters torturing criminals and threatening their friends. This is at least partly due to the time period: As Jessica Plummer noted in her excellent retrospective on the identity crisis, comics are more cynical, paranoid, and mean after 9/11. Outsiders, which was first released in 2003, certainly is. His characters are determined to solve “real” problems, but they have such a childlike understanding of these problems that I really can’t say whether I should support them. Yes, go ahead and drop the Malian dictator on a desert island! This will solve all of Mali’s problems and will not have any negative effects!

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

Overall, I found the series cruel, youthful, and uncomfortable … and, oddly enough, disappointing. Although I’ve never read Outsiders before, I have fond memories of it. Now, of course, I realize how far the fanfiction is from the source material (at least the fanfiction I’ve read). To me, reading outsiders felt weird as I re-watched 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 didn’t invent fan fiction or fan communities, but it has made them more accessible, more widespread, and more diverse. I can recite plots from TV episodes that I’ve never seen before based on what I’ve read on fan fiction and social media posts. I love memes based on movies that I never want to see. (Check out all the fucks I give, Anakin.) By the time I saw The Wizard of Oz again earlier this year, I probably hadn’t seen it in a couple of decades, but it didn’t feel like it at all. Why? It’s gotten into popular culture so much that I’ve spent those intervening years full of jokes and references keeping an eye on the movie. The internet has made pop culture so accessible that you don’t even have to access a medium directly to make it a part of you.

It even made it possible for me to be a fan of a book that I had never read.

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

You could argue that I’m really nostalgic for the fanfiction, not the source material. That probably means something, but at the same time the two are inextricably linked. As I read through the series, I was reminded of direct quotes and certain scenes that I had either seen in scans or filtered through the imaginations of fanfiction writers. By their definition, fanworks cannot exist without their source material, no matter how hard they try to transform it.

Would I have liked Outsider better if I read it years ago? It’s difficult to say. I may have been scared enough of teenagers to appreciate what the show has to offer. Or maybe I would have been annoyed at how far my heroes had fallen and withdrawn into the comforting safety of fanfiction.

But I won’t do that now. I’ve read Outsiders to scratch an old itch, nothing else. If I enjoyed the show, I might feel like joining the fandom again. Instead, I’m more than happy to relegate it back to the realm of nostalgia.