Comics, Childhood and Memory—An Autobiography (Part 2 of 3) by Melanie Gibson

Comics, Childhood and Memory: An Autobiography (Part 2 of 3)

Mel Gibson

I next turn to the most popular of the titles for pre-teens in the late 1950s and on, Bunty, which I experienced entirely as a ‘pass-along reader’. The following images all come from that periodical. I chose to use a single edition here to show different styles of illustration, the use of color and the mixture of new and reprinted material.

Unlike School Friend and Girl, the key difference was that in Bunty the publisher aimed to create comics that they hoped would appeal to working class readers, so developing new markets by further differentiating the audience by class as well as age. Again, as with Girl, the actual audience read across class lines. Familiar tropes and narratives were given new twists in Bunty, most notably, perhaps, in schoolgirl stories. This was the case in ‘The Four Marys’, where one of the ‘Marys’ was a working-class scholarship pupil. This was the narrative most often mentioned by respondents in my 2015 book on memories of comics, and had an impact on several generations of readers. It was reported as about community, unity and friendship, and as enabling girls to overcome obstacles, a narrative of productive and positive inclusion, as is implied by aspects of the story in Figure 4.

However, this approach could be double-edged given that this narrative, like many others, focused on the problems of being a working-class outsider. The stories tended to be concerned with the struggle of such outsiders to deal with the snobbery of, and bullying by, both staff and other pupils. So, on the one hand, one might become one of a very close-knit group of friends, but on the other, one might be victimized because of a perceived difference from the school ‘norm’. As someone who had been severely bullied in school by a teacher before the age of eleven, such stories were far too close to my actual experience to be pleasant reading, again resulting in rejection, especially as I was unconvinced that I would eventually win out as the heroines in the comics did.

These particular genre stories, then, can be interpreted in very different ways. The example below, which appeared in the early 1970s, is a reprint of a much earlier story, as the style of art suggests, along with the uniforms and the dress of the teachers. Here the focus is inter-school sports rivalry and about the consequences of being a ‘show-off’, in this case about a school having superior sports facilities. There is, all the same, a sub-narrative about who is included on the team, with snobbery playing a major part in tensions within the school.

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‘The Four Marys’ ( Bunty , DC Thomson, 832, Dec. 22 1973, pp. 16-17)

‘The Four Marys’ (Bunty, DC Thomson, 832, Dec. 22 1973, pp. 16-17)

The next two images, also from Bunty, are included to illustrate the domestic and everyday life aspects of the title. The first is the title page featuring the ‘Bunty’ picture story which was an often humorous and affectionate account of the titular Bunty’s life. The anthropomorphized dog in the top corner, whilst a surreal addition, is based on Bunty’s dog, which appears in a more normal form in other stories. Many of these comics had a title which was a girls’ name and the contents and cover were, in effect, a summation of a form of girlhood and of the inferred age and gender suitable interests of the potential reader. As with the Twinkle narrative above there are captions, but no speech balloons, so Figure 5 also shows how British comics for girls maintained a range of modes of address.

Bunty front cover ( Bunty , DC Thomson, 832, Dec. 22 1973, p. 1)

Bunty front cover (Bunty, DC Thomson, 832, Dec. 22 1973, p. 1)

The last page of the same edition, featured what was also described in interview (2015) as one of the best remembered aspects of the title across the whole period of the publication of the title, the cut out doll. These pages were often seasonally themed, as is the case here, given that the reader is asked to choose an outfit for a Christmas party. Note also that despite the very different styles of drawing the girls on the front and back cover are both meant to be Bunty, emphasizing the overall identity of the periodical. To actually play with the dolls, in an era before photocopying or scanning were commonplace, meant that the reader had to destroy the ending of the final story, forcing a choice of what was more important to them as individuals. The title was, then, interactive to an extent and this activity serves to point out the agency of the reader.

Bunty Cut out doll (Bunty, DC Thomson, 832, Dec. 22 1973, p. 32)

Bunty Cut out doll (Bunty, DC Thomson, 832, Dec. 22 1973, p. 32)

There were, as mentioned above a number of narratives that featured girls with powers of one kind or another. One of the most popular was Valda (Figure 7) who featured in Mandy from the late 1960s into the 1980s. Many of the narratives focus on adventures, which makes the character increasingly distinct from the domestic and the victim heroine in the comics. Others feature her skills and prowess in a number of sports, including ice skating, tennis and diving. However, she also fights evil and rescues those in difficulty, the latter as shown in Figure 7. She takes her power in part from the crystal depicted around her neck in the main panel, but also has to bathe regularly in the flames of the ‘fire of life’, ensuring the continuation of her skills and youthful appearance, despite being over 200 years old. As a child, what particularly impressed me about this particular story, in one of the few girls’ annuals that I owned, was the abrupt way in which the narrative was introduced. To simply dismiss the concerns and questions of adult males in favor of following one’s own agenda sounded wonderful. Here, then, is another point of contact between girls’ comics and my preferred superhero comics, in what can be recognized as a non-costumed female hero with powers who is assertive and independent. Here the directive aspects, or the focus on suffering, that appeared in other narratives is absent, offering space for celebration, rather than modification, of the self.

‘Valda’ ( Mandy  Annual, DC Thomson, 1976, p.2)

‘Valda’ (Mandy Annual, DC Thomson, 1976, p.2)

What the examples above indicate is that there was generally a quite self-contained world, or model, of girlhood (with various age and class inflections) in each of these titles. This was, on the part of some publishers, purposive in maintaining a space between younger girls and popular culture. Popular culture was seen as potentially corrupting, especially for girls, in the mid twentieth century. That comics could be seen as part of that culture was contained by publishers through incorporating content that could be read by adult gatekeepers such as parents as protecting girls from its worst excesses. Comics were consequently not generally part of the synergy around other forms of popular culture and so became lower profile, increasingly detached from the more consumerist model of girlhood offered in magazines.

However, this protectionist stance was not consistently followed. The mage below offers an example of a very different approach, given that another way of reading the self-contained worlds of many girls’ comics is not as protection of the girl reader, but as a failure to capitalize on the marketing of other cultural products. The chosen example illustrates the practice of closely shadowing popular television programs from the mid-1960s on. There were comics like Lady Penelope (City, 1966-1969), which in addition to its obvious commitment to Thunderbirds also featured strips on The Monkees and Bewitched (Gifford, 1975, p.95). However, this example is from June, a comic that included strips based on television, but was not dominated by them. ‘The Growing up of Emma Peel’ offers an extension to the series, in what might now be called a prequel. The unfortunate cook that features on the page is later explained to be Emma’s trainer in a number of forms of combat and his role is rather like that of Alfred in Batman. The dialogue serves to suggest that Emma’s father does not take her seriously, but her exclamation ‘Got it! At last!’ is used to show the reader that, far from being a dilettante, she is determined and committed. Here too there is an underlying positioning of the girl as to be shaped, in this case indicating the need for self-discipline in achieving aims. The adult Emma is shown in the photograph that leads into the story, and the assumption is that the reader will be aware of the series, but the emphasis is on what is needed to achieve both her glamorousness and her capacity for action.

‘The Growing up of Emma Peel’ ( June , Fleetway, Jan. 29 1966, p. 24)

‘The Growing up of Emma Peel’ (June, Fleetway, Jan. 29 1966, p. 24)

Dr Mel Gibson is an Associate Professor at Northumbria University, UK, specializing in teaching and research relating to comics, graphic novels, picturebooks and fiction for children. She has published widely in these areas, including the monograph (2015) Remembered Reading, on British women's memories of their girlhood comics reading. Her most recent work focuses on girlhoods, agency and contemporary comics. Mel has also run training and promotional events about comics, manga and graphic novels for schools and other organizations since 1993 when she contributed to Graphic Account, a publication that focused on developing graphic novels collections for 16-25 year olds, which was published by the Youth Libraries Group in the UK.

The ‘Remembering UK Comics’ series is edited by Dr William Proctor and Dr Julia Round.


Comics, Childhood and Memory—An Autobiography (Part I of 3) by Mel Gibson

Comics, Childhood and Memory: An Autobiography (1 of 3)

Mel Gibson

Everyone writes and re-writes their autobiographies as they remember, in a continual process of selection and construction. As Annette Kuhn (1995) described it, memory is ‘driven by two sets of concerns. The first has to do with the ways memory shapes the stories we tell, in the present, about the past-especially stories about our own lives. The second has to do with what it is that makes us remember: the prompts, the pretexts of memory; the reminders of the past that remain in the present (p.3). Some of my childhood memories are anchored by what I was reading to a specific place and time, in line with what Kuhn suggests, as having been an enthusiastic comic reader generally means that I have a timeline of my childhood, given that they were typically bought new or second-hand shortly after publication. It also means that comics are tied in a direct way to memory, something which as an ‘aca-fan’ became linked with the practice of object elicitation, of using comics as objects in interview.


As a British child born in 1963 in the North East of England my memories of comics incorporate a wide range of texts, including material like Rupert the Bear and Teddy Tail, anthropomorphic narratives which originated as newspaper strips. I also had access to imported superhero comics, which my father bought for me (or perhaps for himself with me as a secondary, pass-along, audience). These were exclusively DC titles, especially Batman, The Flash and Justice League of America. They were aimed at an audience much older than I was when I first read them, with him, as an under five year old. The combination of comics featuring adult characters and a parent who was around only intermittently, given that he was studying art in London, was potent, giving those comics a heightened significance. That he also used elements of them in art works stressed their importance too and may have contributed to my interest in comics as an ‘aca-fan’.

However, I also had access to comics in the form of annuals that had been gifts for my mother as a child. These annuals related to a gender specific title called Girl, a weekly periodical which had specific class and gender signifiers. More costly than many of the other titles available, and partly printed in four colour rotogravure on comparatively high quality paper, it was also a broadsheet. The majority of titles for girls, in contrast, were tabloid and although they might feature a cover in colour, were usually printed in black and white, with occasional uses of red as a spot colour (see Figure 4 for an illustration of this). All of these physical qualities attached to Girl could be seen as signifying the middle-class nature of the periodical. Who the audience actually was is not so fixed, but the intention was, whoever the reader, to guide their aspirations. It is Girl and the genre that it belonged to, the British girls’ comic, which will be the focus of the majority of this article. I would add that I am focusing down further still, on titles that were aimed largely at younger readers, rather than those in their teens.

The robust annuals, part of the wider culture and marketing around comics, along with toys and a range of other materials and events, were a staple Christmas gift in British households throughout the late twentieth century. The annuals I got to read had been published in the 1950s and contained a mixture of other materials alongside comic strips, including prose narratives. These earlier British publications linked me with both my mother and grandmother through forming the basis of some of our shared reading and family history. As Kuhn states, ‘an image, images, or memories are at the heart of a radiating web of associations, reflections and interpretations’ (1995, p.4).

Engaging with both the superhero comic and the girls’ comic, two very different comic traditions, meant that they became juxtaposed in my mind. Both inhabited what seemed to be gendered spaces and readerships and, indeed, almost appeared to be capable of being used as tools to mold me into a ‘proper’ girl or boy. Both also seemed to contain characters whose activities were linked with gender. I was, however, most drawn to stories in Justice League of America and to one in particular in Girl, entitled ‘Belle of the Ballet’. Whilst the content is very different, what drew me in was that the male and female characters had shared aims and objectives.

The example shown below, which I have analysed in depth elsewhere (2008), is a complete short story from an annual (in the British weekly anthology comics stories could run for twelve weeks or more, each week ending with a cliff-hanger). What is important in this context is that David, the male dance student is a regular character who trains and performs alongside Belle and Marie. He does not dominate the stories, but is simply part of their friendship group. In this example the friends investigate a dance focused mystery where class and the acceptability of dance are also key themes.

This narrative and others about Belle and her friends, the encouragement of family members and the increased cultural interest in ballet as a socially appropriate activity resulted in my taking ballet classes when I was around five. This ended rather swiftly when stage fright and the theft of my Twinkle comics from the dressing room after a performance resulted in my refusing to go back to classes again (or read that comic).

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‘Belle of the Ballet in Little Miss Nobody’. ( Girl Annual 3 , Hulton, 1954, pp. 81-84)

‘Belle of the Ballet in Little Miss Nobody’. (Girl Annual 3, Hulton, 1954, pp. 81-84)

The stolen copies of Twinkle flag up another set of references, as well as memories. It was a British weekly title which was sporadically bought for me and formed a dramatic contrast with the superhero titles. It was an important title for very young girls and, I believe, the only nursery comic that consciously addressed a gendered audience, as indicated by the way that the strap-line after the title ran, ‘specially for little girls’. Accordingly, it often had similar content to titles for older girls, including a focus on work. For instance, Twinkle featured a narrative about ‘Nancy the Little Nurse’, who helped her grandfather mend toys. I returned to this comic and that narrative in 2008, in writing about the many tales about nurses that appeared in British girls’ comics. Twinkle also featured a number of magical friend stories and a range of activities including a cut out doll.

‘Nancy the Little Nurse’ ( Twinkle , No. 362, 28th Dec 1974)

‘Nancy the Little Nurse’ (Twinkle, No. 362, 28th Dec 1974)

I fear that as a child I felt the material in the girls’ titles was somehow constraining in comparison to the content of superhero comics. It was only later, in researching girls and comics, that I became fully aware of the diverse narratives that existed and that these titles were often ground-breaking in terms of both approach and content. Engaging with girls’ comics as an academic, in hoping to understand what these texts meant to readers, helped me grasp the complex nature of the genre and how readers understood those comics, using them as identifiers of self, often in opposition to monolithic readings of girlhood and the girls comic. However, as a child with limited funds to draw on, I simply opted for what I saw as more exciting and less directive. The full color in the superhero titles was also, I admit, an attraction.

However, to return to memory, in largely rejecting British girls’ comics as a slightly older child (preferring, by the mid-1970s, as I entered my teens, the X-Men and Franco-Belgian albums in translation, particularly Asterix, Lucky Luke and Tintin) I was consciously cutting myself off from what was a major genre and shared cultural experience. I now suspect it was also an attempt to disengage from British girlhood and what I saw as the expectations surrounding it. It was also about this time that I became an avid reader of science fiction for adults, which further moved me away from girls’ culture.

To put the scale of this rejection in context, British girls’ comics existed for every age group, as the depiction of the characters in the two narratives above suggests. These weekly anthology publications formed the majority of reading of most British girls between the 1950s and 1990s, with over fifty titles existing through this period and major ones circulating between 800,000 and a million per week. It was, in effect, the dominant form of comic aimed at girls, and created a potential feminine reading trajectory that ran from Twinkle, through Bunty and similar titles aimed at those under twelve, to titles for older readers focused on heterosexual romance and popular culture such as Roxy in the 1950s, and later Jackie and on to magazines. What is also significant about these narratives is that romance only featured in titles for older readers and the worlds depicted in girls comics were about their friendships and rivalries, not about boys.

The narratives they included changed over time especially from the late 1970s to 1990s, some becoming rather bleaker and horror-inflected and others opting for realism via the inclusion of photo stories. Further, a number were slowly converted into magazines, reflecting what were seen as changing interests amongst girls. This shift also served to emphasize that comics were for boys, which the sales figures for girls’ titles actually contradicted. However, as I became a teenager, I was increasingly uncomfortable about talking about my interest in comics, as cultural assumptions about reading meant that I was often told to read magazines for older girls or women instead. Additionally, actively seeking out superhero comics put me firmly in a male zone, including one specialist shop where I was known as ‘the girl’, and seen as a rarity. This meant that I inhabited a liminal zone around popular periodical reading and gender.

To return to the kinds of narratives that existed, the titles for younger readers featured a number of dominant types. There were schoolgirl investigators, school stories of various kinds, work related stories, those tied to popular activities like ballet, ice skating, horse riding or gymnastics and ones about friendships. They also contained ghost stories, ones where girls had magical friends, rags to riches narratives, and tales about animals of various kinds. There were, in addition, forays into science fiction and fantasy, with a number containing heroines with magical or other powers. The umbrella of the girls’ comic, then, had a very diverse range of material beneath it. The following examples give a small indication of some of what was available.

I begin with ‘The Silent Three’, an example of the girl investigator narrative and one of the most popular narratives in what was one of the most popular titles for girls in the 1950s. Whilst the majority of girl investigator narratives do not incorporate costumes, here the three friends wear matching domino masks and cloaks. The friends’ activities are also part of a type of secret society at school. Consequently, investigative narratives in this particular story run alongside ones about everyday school life, including school bullies attempting to either find out about or discredit those in the society. This has some obvious links with concepts in the superhero titles including the vulnerability of the hero and the secret identity. This is despite the private all-girl school and middle (or upper middle) class context of the narrative. The villains, as suggested in the images below, as well as the school bullies, may also be, like those in some Enid Blyton books, class ‘others’.

‘The Silent Three’. ( School Friend Annual , AP, 1958, p. 7)

‘The Silent Three’. (School Friend Annual, AP, 1958, p. 7)

Dr Mel Gibson is an Associate Professor at Northumbria University, UK, specializing in teaching and research relating to comics, graphic novels, picturebooks and fiction for children. She has published widely in these areas, including the monograph (2015) Remembered Reading, on British women's memories of their girlhood comics reading. Her most recent work focuses on girlhoods, agency and contemporary comics. Mel has also run training and promotional events about comics, manga and graphic novels for schools and other organizations since 1993 when she contributed to Graphic Account, a publication that focused on developing graphic novels collections for 16-25 year olds, which was published by the Youth Libraries Group in the UK.

The ‘Remembering UK Comics’ series is edited by Dr William Proctor and Dr Julia Round.

Remembering UK Comics: A Conversation with William Proctor and Julia Round (Part II)




When I was reading comics like Jackie I don’t remember any credits at all though, and I certainly didn’t know enough about the creators to follow anyone in particular. I barely recognized celebrities in the photos strips! (and there were some fairly big names, though often before they were famous - that’s George Michael below). Jackie always felt more like a magazine than a comic to me though - I mostly remember its articles (on anything from anorexia to crafting), pop music features and interviews, and of course tons of quizzes (how else would I have known what sort of personality I had or how to attract the right sort of boy?!)

George Michael stars in this photo strip from  Jackie

George Michael stars in this photo strip from Jackie

So my awareness of British comics creators has been almost entirely retrospective, a bit like yours I think. It’s been an amazing journey of discovery! I’m still not great at recognizing art, but the range of styles and techniques and layouts in these comics is spectacular. Some of the pages are mind-blowing! — notions like tiers and grids simply didn’t seem to exist for these artists. 

‘The Chase’,  Misty  #40 (art by Douglas Perry, writer unknown)

‘The Chase’, Misty #40 (art by Douglas Perry, writer unknown)

‘The Loving Cup’,  Misty  #71 (art by Brian Delaney, writer unknown)

‘The Loving Cup’, Misty #71 (art by Brian Delaney, writer unknown)


That’s a great point about artistic styles, Julia. Again, at the time it would have just seemed typical to me, and while breaking the structural ‘rules’ of grids and tiers has become quite common nowadays, often with critics describing such exploits as innovative (especially in superhero comics). But it’s not something I’ve given much consideration to be honest (and certainly not at the time).  


There’s a lot of variety! Some artists did always go in for quite static layouts of course - regular rectangular panels laid out in three tiers. Some of the DC Thomson titles in particular might include things like a snippet of dialogue captioning the whole page (‘Dad! You can’t mean it!’) - for me, this can make the events feel a bit more like summaries and slows the pace. But a lot of the girls’ comics had crazy layouts! All those gymnasts and swimmers meant dynamic action that could be used to break up the page. Doug Church’s role as art editor of 2000AD led a big push towards splash pages and large opening panels that definitely fed into titles like Misty in the late 1970s, but I think the impetus was always there. 

‘Bella’,  Tammy  (written by   Primrose Cumming, art by John Armstrong)

‘Bella’, Tammy (written by Primrose Cumming, art by John Armstrong)


Thanks to Professor Martin Barker, I now have a complete run of the 1970s’ comic Action, which caused quite a controversy stirred by the media ‘harm brigade’ (the more things change, and all that). It is my favorite UK comic overall, but that came much later after I read Barker’s Comics, Ideology and its Critics (1989). I won’t go into that here as we have an essay upcoming focused on the title, and an interview with Martin Barker himself, but I think it’s interesting that comics tapped into successful films, much in the same way that so-called ‘exploitation’ cinema did. Spielberg’s Jaws led to a cycle of ‘Sharksploitation’ and ‘nature-run-amok’ films, like William Girdler’s Grizzly (1976) -- which lifts its plot from Jaws, but replaces the Great White with an 18-foot tall grizzly bear! -- Michael Anderson’s Orca (1977), Joe Dante’s Piranha (2000),and many, many more, all the way into the new millennium with the Sharknado franchise. But UK comics tapped into successful film cycles as well, like Action’s ‘Hookjaw,’ a bloody intertextual remix of Moby Dick and Jaws.

‘Hookjaw’ from  Action

‘Hookjaw’ from Action

It seems to me — and I’m sure scholars have mentioned this before me--that comics also drew from the exploitation model of latching onto the coat-tails of popular cinema. Another example that springs to mind comes out of your research into Misty, Julia! I’m thinking of the strip titled ‘Moonchild’ by Pat Mills and John Armstrong, which is a thinly-veiled riff on Stephen King’s Carrie; although as Simon Brown points out in his Screening Stephen King, without Brian De Palma’s 1976 adaptation, King probably wouldn’t be the house-hold name he is today! So I’m guessing that it was De Palma’s film that ‘Moonchild’ is responding to rather than King (at least directly). 



Absolutely — the Misty serials in particular seemed to rearticulate texts from all over the place. As well as ‘Moonchild,’ Pat Mills wrote a serial called ‘Hush, Hush, Sweet Rachel’, which takes its plot from Frank De Felitta’s Audrey Rose (1975, also adapted into a film in 1977). ‘End of the Line’ (Malcolm Shaw and John Richardson, #28–42) draw on the movie Death Line (1972), where people are kidnapped by the cannibalistic descendants of a group of Victorian tube tunnel workers trapped underground. Of course, sometimes the recycling is little more than a name-check to create an atmosphere: ‘Whistle and I’ll Come,’ which recalls M.R. James’s ghost story ‘Whistle and I’ll Come to You’ (1904) which was made into a UK television adaptation in 1968). ‘Hush, Hush, Sweet Rachel’ is a portmanteau of the movie Hush . . . Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964), a psychological thriller about infidelity and a falsely accused murderess, and the TV movie Sweet, Sweet Rachel (1971), a pilot for a series about a murderer who uses extrasensory perception. And ‘The Four Faces of Eve’ (Malcolm Shaw and Brian Delaney) name-checks the 1957 movie The Three Faces of Eve, which is about dissociative identity disorder. So intertextual references were very common, even if only used as a knowing nod to source material or to conjure a mood. 



Although I’m aware of academic work on UK Comics—James Chapman’s British Comics, Mel Gibson’s Remembered Reading: Memory, Comics and Post-War Constructions of British Girlhood, and Martin Barker’s Comics, Ideology and its Critics are three of my personal favourites—I often wonder if some of the UK Comics’ history is in danger of being forgotten. There are surely reams of publications that have yet to receive academic treatment (I am unaware of work on comics like Champ and Scream, two of my nostalgic objects). Of course, you have your new book on Misty coming out soon as well! Mazel tov!

Is that a fair assessment of the field do you think, Julia?  Are we in danger of losing our national memory about UK Comics to some degree?



Definitely. Few people thought any of these comics (particularly the girls’ titles) were worth preserving or collecting, and I’ve heard loads of horror stories of original artwork being used as cutting boards, or comics being used to mop up archive floors, or thrown into skips (when Fleetway moved offices), or just given away outside conventions. Mel Gibson’s research into readers’ memories and oral histories actually started because she found that the comics themselves were so hard to get hold of! When big private collections have appeared (such as Denis Gifford’s, after his death) they’ve been split up and sold off. I’ve been part of a number of (rejected) bids to try and get some national research money behind preserving some of these collections, and I’m speaking at a public event next weekend (Saturday 2 November) at the Cartoon Museum in London that is trying yet again to drum up some interest in this. We need to protect and preserve these publications and their ephemera, whether through digitisation or creation of a physical archive. There isn’t anything about today that looks or feels (or smells!) like old British comics — they really are relics of a bygone age, not to mention an important part of our national memory. They have so much to tell us about society from almost every angle — ideology, gender roles, politics, economics, social norms, other media, and much much more. 

 Plus, did I mention that the stories and artwork are awesome?!



It’s certainly a history that is worth preserving, and I’m sure that there are many titles that have fallen through the academic gap (and perhaps will continue to do so). And yes, the stories and artwork are awesome (sublime, even)! 

I’m sure some readers may find the idea of ‘smell’ quite odd, but when I sniff an old comic, I am immediately catapulted back through time as if at 88 miles per hour in a Delorean; back to a simpler time, of a childhood spent indiscriminately gorging on a bevvy of titles, often picked up at a jumble sale hosted by a local church (in my experience). I remember ink-stained fingers as I delivered comics and newspapers—and the odd porn magazine—on my paper route. I remember Dennis the Menace terrorizing his dad, who would react spectacularly by chasing Dennis with his weaponized slippers. I remember Judge Dredd shooting up another block party, Slaine slicing and dicing his enemies, a thinly-veiled analogue of Robert E. Howard’s Conan. I remember laughing at the various strips in Whizzer and Chips, Cor!, Buster, etc.; gasping at the latest twists and turns in Roy of the Rovers; shivering in terror at ‘The Thirteenth Floor.’  I remember reading my sister’s Jackie, Mandy, and Bunty. Gender didn’t matter in what I read—I was and remain a comic book omnivore— yet it mattered enough not to openly declare my eclecticism to friends for fear of masculine reprisal in the school playground. I remember it as the best of times during the worst of times (I grew up in Thatcher’s Britain, so nuff said). 



At the beginning of this conversation, I did caution that I would be likely to wax lyrical! My memories of reading as a child, and as a teen, are precious. Without the education provided by comics, I’m not sure I would be such an energetic and avid reader as I have been throughout my adult life. (Bryan Talbot once said that he learned to read through comics, so I know I’m in good company.)  



In essence, this series of essays on UK Comics aims to spotlight at least some of the medium’s history. As such, we have curated a lively series of essays that will hopefully reach those readers for whom UK Comics are forgotten relics, or to share a range of perspectives on a medium that people may not be aware of. We hope you’ll join us on our voyage into the dog-eared, pulp-inflected, yellow-stained past as we remember the wonderful, eclectic, intelligent, and insane world of UK Comics.  

Next week, we begin with Dr Mel Gibson on girl’s comics.  Join us, won’t you?


Dr William Proctor is Senior Lecturer in Transmedia at Bournemouth University, UK. He has published widely on various topics related to popular culture, including Batman. James Bond, Stephen King, Star Wars and more. William is a leading expert on franchise reboots, and is currently writing his debut monograph, Reboot Culture: Comics, Film, and Transmedia Histories (forthcoming, Palgrave). He is the co-editor of Global Convergence Cultures: Transmedia Earth (with Matthew Freeman, Routledge 2018), and Disney’s Star Wars: Forces of Promotion, Production, and Reception (with Richard McCulloch, University of Iowa Press 2019).

Dr Julia Round is a Principal Lecturer in the Faculty of Media and Communication at Bournemouth University, UK. She is one of the editors of Studies in Comics journal (Intellect Books) and a co-organiser of the annual International Graphic Novel and Comics Conference (IGNCC). Her first book was Gothic in Comics and Graphic Novels (McFarland, 2014), followed by the edited collection Real Lives, Celebrity Stories (Bloomsbury, 2014). In 2015 she received the Inge Award for Comics Scholarship for her research, which focuses on Gothic, comics, and children’s literature. She has recently completed two AHRC-funded studies examining how digital transformations affect young people's reading. Her new book Misty and Gothic for Girls in British Comics (forthcoming from UP Mississippi, 2019) examines the presence of Gothic themes and aesthetics in children’s comics, and is accompanied by a searchable database of all the stories (with summaries, previously unknown creator credits, and origins), available at her website


Remembering UK Comics: A Conversation with William Proctor and Julia Round (Part I)


Editor’s Note: Most American comic fans know of the so-called British Invasion as creators such as Neil Gaiman, Alan Moore, and Frank Miller, among others, represented new voices in U.S. comics. But few have taken the time to understand the larger British comics culture — the context which these and many other gifted pop culture auteurs emerged. But more than that, we should know more about everyday comics culture — what British youth read, what forms these publications took, how stories circulated in their “ordinary” lives, and so forth.

When I first came to England in the early 1990s, I came back with a suitcase full of magazines and comics, fascinated by a parallel world of popular culture in English which was little known in America. I had read my Angela McRobbie and Martin Barker and even George Orwell’s work on the comic postcard, and wanted to understand this tradition better. I had no idea that British comics was sputtering well before I got there.

When Billy Proctor proposed a series of interviews, conversations, and essays on the British comics tradition, I jumped at the chance. I had first met Billy through our shared interests in the works of Bryan Talbot, having spent a wonderful afternoon at the home of one of the UK’s leading comics artists. I felt more of us around the world should know of this history and so for the next few weeks, I am turning control of my blog over to Proctor, who organized the “Cult Conversations” series a while back, and his colleague, comics scholar Julia Round, for a deep dive into this particular comics culture.

In the coming year, I hope to do more here on comics and comics studies as we ramp up to the release of my book, Comics and Stuff, coming in 2020 from New York University Press



I should state that I am likely to wax nostalgic about UK Comics, or at least, comics I read in my salad years. It seems that my childhood was a period where comic books were in abundance (I was born in 1974). Scanning the shelves of local newsagents these days fills me with sadness, to be honest, although perhaps I’m peering into the past with rose-tinted spectacles. Perhaps not. It’s not that there are no UK comics any longer—far from it. As the image below attests, shelves are teeming with British comics. But to my eyes, they all seem to be for children, less so for anyone over the age of five or six. And what counts as a ‘childrens’ comic’ seems to have shifted quite significantly since around the 1990s.

Here’s an image of UK comics’ shelves in retailer, WHSmith.


Comics were a huge part of my reading life from childhood through to my teens. Of course, I continued to read comics as an adult as well, but gravitated towards more ‘mature’ fare. Maybe it was a rite of passage, generally speaking. Many of us started out reading The Beano, The Dandy, Whizzer and Chips, Cor, etc. then moved onto titles like Victor, Action, The Eagle, Warlord, Scream, Champ, and, of course, 2000AD. I’m talking mainly here about boys' comics, but I also read girls’ comics too! I would never have bought them nor admitted to reading them to my friends though! Even at a young age, boys were dunked in the petri-dish of masculinity, learning to become MEN. If I’d finished reading my weekly purchases, I’d certainly dip into my sister’s Jackie, Bunty, and Tammy, as well as her magazines such as Look-In and Smash Hits.

 Am I romanticizing our youth Julia?



Not at all! — in fact, I really like the idea that working your way through the British comics, from youngest to oldest, was a rite of passage. Sadly though it seems that often it ended in the denigration and ultimate rejection of comics - I’m wondering if this attitude was almost culturally ingrained. Memory is a strange beast - if you’d asked me twenty years ago if I read British comics as a kid I think I might have said not really - not because I was lying, I just didn’t really remember much about them or how significant they were to me. But I did read them, and part of the joy of immersing myself in them again for research purposes has been having all these half-formed memories flooding back.

JACKIE  (1980)

JACKIE (1980)

I had a long hiatus from girls’ comics after a particularly scary encounter with Misty when I was about 7 or 8 (for more on that check out our podcast!), but I read Jackie for years afterwards, well into my early teens, and lots before that as well. I think I started on Twinkle, and I definitely read The Beano and The Dandy enough to get some annuals for Christmas. I also distinctly remember a comic from my pre-teen years called BIG that nobody at all remembers (the lack of exclamation mark was very important since there was another pop magazine called BIG! which my newsagent always used to produce for me instead). I’ve often doubted it existed, but a spot of internet research turned up this, and tells me that it was a reprint title, collecting the best of comics such as Cor!, Buster, Whizzer and Chips, and so on. Reprinting and recycling was common practice in the British comics - not just in the souvenir hardback ‘annuals’ which would be released every year in time for well-meaning relatives to buy you for Christmas, but also between titles. Publishers believed that kids only read comics for a few years, meaning that their entire audience would be renewed every 8 years or so, which meant that popular serials that had originally appeared in one title would often be recycled into another one some years later, or collected together under a different name, like BIG.


One of the most interesting things about the British comics was the sheer range of titles. Ones for the very young, like Twinkle, with simple layouts and stories about fairies and flowers and talking animals. The anarchic comedy titles like Beano, Dandy, Cor! and the others. The war, sports and sf titles for boys that you’ve mentioned, and the school and ballet stories for girls (June and School Friend, Bunty), not to mention the romance titles of the 1950s. But as the medium developed and the number of weekly publications increased, it’s worth stressing that these were definitely not all cosy Enid Blyton-style tales - horrific bullying, ghostly happenings, mistaken identities, kidnappings, and much much more graced the pages of the British girls’ comics, and things got dark — really dark! — before the industry faltered in the 1970/80s and finally collapsed in the 1990s.  


It still boggles me that an industry that at its peak was publishing hundreds of weekly titles, with circulation figures up in the millions, can have so completely collapsed! And it didn’t have anything to do with censorship or a Code like in America. British comics publishing was completely dominated by two main companies: DC Thomson, a family-run firm based in Dundee, Scotland, and Fleetway Publications (originally known as Amalgamated Press, and later renamed as the holding company International Publishing Corporation, which also gobbled up many smaller publishers such as Odhams and Newnes). These two companies were engaged in fierce competition which went on for decades. They poached each other’s creators, copied each other’s titles, kept prices low, increased free gifts, and constantly sought to outdo each other for drama and excitement - we, the readers, definitely befitted from their creativity and innovation!  


The strongest memories for me are of absolutely nail-biting stories, combined with crazy layouts and amazing artwork. Fleetway sourced most of this from Spanish artists, many of whom (I found out much later) also worked for publishers like Warren in America. I didn’t know enough about the writers or artists to recognise this at the time, of course, and the British comics stories were completely uncredited for many years, which didn’t help either! Do you remember any particular artists or writers Billy/what are your strongest memories of the ones you read? 



That’s an interesting question! I think it was only when I started to read 2000AD that artists and writers came to the fore. The comics I read in junior school (ages 7-11) were mostly the humor comics such as The Beano, The Dandy, and later, Champ and Scream. It was only later that I went back and recognized certain writers and artists—Alan Moore was involved in writing ‘Monster’ for Scream, which was a short-lived anthology comic that absolutely terrified me! (I’ve since bought the complete 15-issue run from Ebay.) It was in secondary school (ages 11-16) when I gravitated to 2000AD. I worked at the local newsagents as a paper-boy then, and I even remember the address where I delivered 2000AD on a weekly basis! Unbeknownst to both the addressee and the newsagent, they wouldn’t receive their copy on the day of release, but the day after. I would take the comic home to read before delivering the next day, hoping that I wouldn’t be caught for doing so. At school, there were a few kids who also read 2000AD—and I mean a few. It’s plausible that many teens read 2000AD regularly, but perhaps we were at an age where that wasn’t to be admitted in public. (Puberty came with unwritten rules after all, and comics should have been in the rear-view mirror by that time.)  


But there was one boy who had a massive back catalogue of 2000AD comics, and we became fast friends. He would lend me older issues in chronological order so I could read full stories from beginning to end. Then as now, 2000AD worked on a kind of rotation. The flagship strip was, and remains,  ‘Judge Dredd.’ Dredd would feature in every issue at the front of the comic, but other strips would run for a number of weeks until the story was finished, then depart for a while, replaced by other stories on a rotating basis. I distinctly remember the first time I started to recognize artists’ styles without looking at the credits. The story was ‘Nemesis the Warlock’ and the run that introduced me to the character was by Bryan Talbot. The detail is incredible, with the technique of cross-hatching used to magnificent effect. (I once spoke to Talbot about departing from that style later in his long and illustrious career and he simply remarked: “it takes bloody ages, that’s why I stopped!”) And to this day, ‘Nemesis the Warlock’ remains my absolute favorite UK comic, bar none.


Other artists, such as Brian Bolland and Kevin O’Neill, also became instantly recognizable.  

Of course, this was the era when the ‘big two’ US publishers, Marvel and DC, would start offering work to UK writers and artists, many of whom cut their teeth on 2000AD. In effect, 2000AD became a breeding ground for talent, with now-familiar names crossing the Atlantic to work as hired hands for the big two: Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, Alan Moore, Peter Milligan, Warren Ellis, Jamie Delano, etc. This is often referred to as ‘The British Invasion.’  

Art by Brian Bolland, who would go on to pencil Alan Moore’s  The Killing Joke  for DC.

Art by Brian Bolland, who would go on to pencil Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke for DC.

It was much later, however, that writers and artists became sovereign (at least for me). So while I may be au fait with many artists’ styles nowadays, that occurred retroactively, and even more so when I began studying comics as an academic. I must say that my scholarly work, however, is focused more on US superhero comics than UK comics, although I hope that I’ll rectify that in future—I’ve been keen on doing some work on Scream as it seems broadly neglected in academic spheres. 


In a nutshell, my strongest memories are of excitement and horror! Roy of the Rovers always left me gasping with exertion, as did ‘We are United’ in Champ. I was an avid football fan, and these strips seemed akin to the real thing—perhaps more so!  


Also in Champ was ‘The Sinister World of Mr Pendragon.’ I would read it under the bed covers (with a flashlight), and would be so paralyzed with fright that I wouldn’t dare go to the bathroom in case the monsters ate me! ‘The Dracula Files’ in Scream had a similar effect.  


What about you Julia?  Did you recognize artists or follow a particular writer? As you said, of course, many strips went uncredited at the time, but I believe Action and 2000AD instigated a shift towards proper accreditation (I may be wrong about that but I’m sure you’ll tell me!)




If you go back far enough, there actually used to be credits in British comics - you can find them in Eagle (1950–69) and some of the romance titles of a similar era, but by the 1970s this wasn’t standard practice any more. Some smaller companies like Top Shelf did carry on crediting their artists and writers, but the British Big Two definitely did not. Part of each comic’s editorial team’s job was actually to paint over any signatures that artists dared to add to their work! - of course this led to lots of more subtle signatures and references bring inserted, and it can be lots of fun to try and spot these. The artist John Armstrong was particularly good at hiding his initials in his artwork! 


I think 2000AD was the comic responsible for bringing creator credits back when it launched in 1977 - its art editor Kevin O’Neill basically said ‘This is bullsh*t’, put them on, and told Fleetway management they were experimenting. They’ve been there ever since! The idea was then picked up by Tammy editor Wilf Prigmore (credits first appeared in Tammy on July 17, 1982, and continued until February 11, 1984). He remembers this move as also being driven by one of his writers, Anne Digby, as the comic was serialising an adaptation of her Trebizon school story novels and she thought adding her name might help them sell. 


Dr William Proctor is Senior Lecturer in Transmedia at Bournemouth University, UK. He has published widely on various topics related to popular culture, including Batman. James Bond, Stephen King, Star Wars and more. William is a leading expert on franchise reboots, and is currently writing his debut monograph, Reboot Culture: Comics, Film, and Transmedia Histories (forthcoming, Palgrave). He is the co-editor of Global Convergence Cultures: Transmedia Earth (with Matthew Freeman, Routledge 2018), and Disney’s Star Wars: Forces of Promotion, Production, and Reception (with Richard McCulloch, University of Iowa Press 2019).

Dr Julia Round is a Principal Lecturer in the Faculty of Media and Communication at Bournemouth University, UK. She is one of the editors of Studies in Comics journal (Intellect Books) and a co-organiser of the annual International Graphic Novel and Comics Conference (IGNCC). Her first book was Gothic in Comics and Graphic Novels (McFarland, 2014), followed by the edited collection Real Lives, Celebrity Stories (Bloomsbury, 2014). In 2015 she received the Inge Award for Comics Scholarship for her research, which focuses on Gothic, comics, and children’s literature. She has recently completed two AHRC-funded studies examining how digital transformations affect young people's reading. Her new book Misty and Gothic for Girls in British Comics (forthcoming from UP Mississippi, 2019) examines the presence of Gothic themes and aesthetics in children’s comics, and is accompanied by a searchable database of all the stories (with summaries, previously unknown creator credits, and origins), available at her website


Interview with Morgan G. Ames on 'The Charisma Machine: The Life, Death, and Legacy of One Laptop Per Child' (Part III)


You note that many of the accounts that link the OLPC with cultural imperialism discount the cultural agency of the child users. What do these accounts miss? 

Other analyses of OLPC provide some really insightful critiques about the project's potential effects, but nearly all of them just don't have any on-the-ground experience with how OLPC's XO laptops were actually used. Without seeing what kids were doing with the laptops, I feel like they're missing half the story -- in particular, almost none of the kids cared at all about OLPC's vision or the constructionist software on the machine. If they used the laptop at all, they pursued their own interests with it.  

There were also some features of the laptop -- its mesh network, for instance -- that generated a lot of excitement early on, but really did not work in practice. The XO laptops were just too slow and their batteries drained too fast to make mesh networking possible; the capability was in fact removed from an update to the Sugar software. 

At the same time, I don't want to let OLPC off the hook when it comes to cultural imperialism. OLPC's leaders said all sorts of things about kids leapfrogging past all the adults in their lives, teaching themselves English and programming, and ultimately transforming their cultures. But what does it mean to frame kids as the primary agents of change? Negroponte often said just this in his talks: "We have to leverage kids as the agents of change." Not schools, not governments, not infrastructures, not even parents -- kids.  

One problem with this is that it assumes that kids are not really fully within their cultures. This fits with many of our social imaginaries of children as closer to nature and more noble for it -- they aren't mired in the petty concerns of adulthood yet. OLPC hoped to capture children's "natural" interests and steer them toward computing cultures and away from the cultures they were born into. In addition to being a sneakier form of cultural imperialism, this of course didn't work -- my results corroborated what researchers in education and social science know very well: that learning is socially-motivated and culturally-embedded.  

A second, and much more fundamental, problem comes from the model of cultural change this promotes, which centers on children. It means that these projects are under-resourced from the beginning, because they weren't really thinking about infrastructural or institutional change -- they were focused on individual change and just hoping that larger changes flow from that. And when that change fails to happen, it becomes the fault of those individuals. Failure becomes the fault of the children. 

This meant, for one, that when way more laptops were breaking than One Laptop per Child expected, it was at least at first seen as the responsibility of the kids to repair them. OLPC shipped an extra 1% of laptops, but just over a year after laptops had been handed out in Paraguay, 15% were inoperable, and at least another 15% had dead pixels, missing keys, and other hardware problems. This really blindsided Paraguay Educa -- OLPC leaders had told them that these laptops were so rugged they could withstand being tossed around. Negroponte loved to toss XOs across stages and then turn them on in his presentations. Moreover, OLPC leaders said that kids would be able to repair any issue that would come up. Papert himself had said, "An eight-year old is capable of doing 90% of tech support and a 12 year old 100%. And this is not exploiting the children: it is giving them a powerful learning experience."

Paraguay Educa soon realized, however, that this was not the kinds of breakage that kids could fix on their own. And, moreover, they needed way more spare parts than OLPC had provided. They found temporary workarounds, but once their funding started to run dry, the broken laptops started to really stack up. When I returned in 2013 for some follow-up fieldwork, one participant estimated that counted generously, only 40% of the project's laptops were usable at all, and most of those were rarely used. 

It's these kinds of details that one can only really get from spending some time on the ground. In the early days of the project, many were deeply worried about theft and a laptop black market -- but this problem was basically nonexistent. Breakage, however, was a major problem, and was not adequately anticipated.

Broken XO

Broken XO

You traced what happened to some of the “success stories’ from OLPC. What outcomes did you find? What factors shaped the long term impact of their engagement with computing and programming? 

I was really interested in finding any cases that OLPC would likely define as "success" -- and while I didn't find many, I did find a handful! A few were interested in Scratch or eToys, two of the constructionist programs on the machine. Others photoblogged or learned some basic technical skills. When I returned for follow-up fieldwork in 2013, some were part of a Saturday programming club run by Paraguay Educa. 

What was striking about these kids, though, was that all of them were encouraged by their caretakers -- generally mothers or aunts -- to take their laptop use beyond the media consumption of their peers. These kids' learning was clearly socially-motivated -- and they were, in essence, practicing the other half of connected learning that was missing for most kids. Many of them also already had a computer at home, which was rare in Paraguay more generally, at least in 2010. 

However, most of them ran into various structural limitations in this use. A big one was the English-centric nature of the Internet and of nearly all programming languages. Another involved the kinds of opportunities available in their provincial town. While I am generally very critical of "deficit" models of learning, I also can't ignore the ways that historical and present conditions at times actively marginalized those few interested children. In the end, I think their lives were enriched by the project, but they were not transformed.

Let me end by posing one of your own driving questions. What is the alternative to Charisma-driven models of technological and cultural change? 

In an ideal world, I'd love for projects to honestly assess the resources needed for even incremental change, and to engage in really culturally-embedded cooperatively-run projects led by local leaders, with long-term support for making incremental improvements. Because that's just what is actually realistic here. I'm deeply tired of the technologists on tech-centric projects like this one assuming they're the smartest people in the room and that they don't need to consult with anyone else -- we can clearly see the consequences on that not just with One Laptop per Child but, really, in the many moral crises across the technology industry as a whole.  

I recognize that this would be a pretty drastic transformation from how many tech-centered development and education projects tend to be run -- at least, those that tend to get the most attention and resources. So as a first step, I would ask that those involved in these projects at least recognize that the "moonshot" model of technology-driven social change -- where projects are encouraged to think big, to "disrupt" everything, to "fail fast and often" in hopes that one day they'll really transform the world -- is not only unrealistic, it has some real negative consequences. People involved in developing these technologies are often blinded themselves by their charisma -- they're part of that project because they've bought into the vision too. At the very least, I hope my account can help them stay a bit more grounded, keep their eyes and ears open, and keep their hearts just a little more humble.


Morgan G. Ames researches the ideological origins of inequality in the technology world, with a focus on utopianism, childhood, and learning. Her book The Charisma Machine: The Life, Death, and Legacy of One Laptop per Child (MIT Press, 2019) draws on archival research and a seven-month ethnography in Paraguay to explore the cultural history, results, and legacy of the OLPC project -- and what it tells us about the many other technology projects that draw on similar utopian ideals. Morgan is an assistant adjunct professor in the School of Information and interim associate director of research for the Center for Science, Technology, Medicine and Society at the University of California, Berkeley, where she teaches in Data Science and administers the Designated Emphasis in Science and Technology Studies."

Interview with Morgan G. Ames on 'The Charisma Machine: The Life, Death, and Legacy of One Laptop Per Child' (Part II)


You root the OLPC project in a particular conception of the relationship between technology and childhood in the thinking of Seymour Papert. What do you see as some of the core assumptions shaping this vision of ‘the technically precocious boy”?

Nicholas Negroponte was certainly the public face of One Laptop per Child, but he readily admitted in his marathon of talks in the early days of OLPC that the very idea for the project was actually Papert's, even though Papert was already retired when OLPC was announced. He often said that the whole project was "the life's work of Seymour Papert." 

And when you read through all of Papert's public writing, from the late 1960s through the early 2000s, you can clearly see that connection. Papert started writing about the liberatory potential of giving kids free access to computers not long after after he joined MIT in the 1960s. Throughout the 1970s, he was a central figure in developing the LOGO programming environment. The branch he worked on, which ended up being the dominant branch, was built around the ideals of what he called "constructionism," as a tool for kids to use to explore mathematical and technical concepts in a grounded, playful way. He kept advocating these same views throughout the 1980s and 1990s, even as LOGO lost steam after many of the really grand utopian promises attached to it failed to materialize.

Seymour Papert

Seymour Papert

I argue that one of the reasons for this failure is that LOGO and many constructionist projects are built around a number of assumptions about childhood and technology that just aren't true for all children -- and in fact are only true for a particular set of children, mostly boys, who have a lot of support to explore technical systems.  

Some of this support comes from their immediate environment: they have parents who bought them a computer, who helped them figure it out, who were there to troubleshoot, who supported their technical interests. If it wasn't a parent, it was someone else they could turn to with questions. The programmers I've interviewed who proudly say they are self-taught had a whole constellation of resources like this to help them along. 

But some of this support also comes from the cultural messages that we hear, and often propagate, about children. Messages about boys' supposedly "natural" interest in tinkering with machines goes back at least 100 years -- there's this great volume called The Boy Mechanic: 700 Things for Boys to Do that was published in 1913! Then there's transistor radio culture, engineering competitions, and a whole host of technical toys specifically marketed to boys in the decades following. Amy Ogata, Susan Douglas, Ruth Oldenziel, and many other fantastic historical scholars have traced these histories in depth. With the rise of computing, this same boy-centered engineering culture gets connected to programming, displacing all of the women who had been doing that work as low-paid clerical workers around and after World War II, as Nathan Ensmenger and Mar Hicks have shown. The same boy-centered culture also defined the video game industry in the 1980s.  


From all of this, at every turn boys -- and particularly white middle-class boys -- are told that they belong in this culture, that they are (or can be) naturals at programming. Everyone else has to account for themselves in these worlds, and everyone else faces ostracism, harassment, and worse if they dare to stick around. It's something I became pretty familiar with myself throughout my computer science major.

When I talk about the "technically precocious boy," it's both of these pieces -- the specific material and social support certain kids get, but also the larger cultural messages they live with and have to make sense of in their own lives. This is what social scientists call a "social imaginary," or a coherent and shared vision that helps define a group.  

Unless projects very actively reject and counter these social imaginaries, they ride the wave of them. One Laptop per Child is one of these, just as Papert's other projects were. Even though these projects tended to speak inclusively about "girls and boys" and "many ways of knowing," they then turned around and extolled the virtues of video games and talked about technical tinkering in ways that wholly relied on this century of cultural messaging, which had long been incredibly exclusionary.

Did this conception constitute a blind spot when applied, unproblematically, to childhoods lived in other parts of the world? How might we characterize the childhoods of the people who were encountering these devices in Latin America? 

The biggest issue with relying on the social imaginary of the technically precocious boy is that the kids who identified with it have always made up a very small part of the population. If you think back to the youths of many of those who contributed to OLPC, who were discussing its similarities with the Commodores or Apple IIs of their childhoods -- most of their peers couldn't care less about computers. So to assume that somehow all or most kids across the Global South, or anywhere in the world, would care when this kind of passion is idiosyncratic even in places that have long had decent access to computers is a bit baffling to me.  

When I've said as much to friends who worked on OLPC, I often heard something along the lines of, "well, those past machines maybe only appealed to some kids, but this one will have much more universal appeal!" And Papert wrote about the universal potential of computers too -- he called them the "Proteus of machines," with something to appeal to everyone. I see similar stories in movements to teach all kids to code.  

But the majority of the kids I got to know in Paraguay -- as well as those I met in Uruguay and Peru -- just weren't very interested in these under-powered laptops. I found that over half of kids in Paraguay would rather play with friends or spend time with their families, and didn't find anything all that compelling about the device. The one third of students who did use their laptops much at all liked to connect to the Internet, play little games, watch videos, listen to music -- pretty similar to what many kids I know in the U.S. like to do with computers. This is not to erase the cultural differences that were there, much less the legacy of imperialism still very much present across the region. But it really drives home just how wrong the assumption was that kids in the Global South would be drawn to these machines in a way that differed fundamentally from most kids in the Global North, that they'd really want to learn to program.


You correctly note that the metaphor of the school as a factory often results in a dismissal of teacher’s role in the educational process. Yet, the OLPC and other Media Lab projects have depended heavily upon teachers and other educators to help motivate adaption and use of these new platforms and practices. How have these two ideas been reconciled in practice? 

The social imaginary of school-as-factory is a perfect foil for the social imaginary of the naturally creative child (and the technically-precocious boy as an offshoot of it). We certainly see messages all the time that portray schools with derision and contempt -- in spite of a long and well-documented history of school reform, schools are often talked about as hopelessly outdated, mechanistic, and antithetical to children's creativity. (This is not to say that I think schools are perfect as they are -- I certainly dislike drill-and-test practices, for one -- but they are complicated and culturally-embedded institutions, often asked to create impossibly large cultural changes with impossibly scant resources.) When One Laptop per Child, or other Media Lab projects, echo some of these sentiments, they hardly need explain themselves -- the school-as-factory social imaginary readily comes to hand.  

But you're right that how schools relate to teachers, and how teachers relate to these projects, is much more complicated. In his writing Papert very clearly condemns schools, but is much more equivocal about teachers, often casting them as "co-learners" even as they are charged with steering children's learning toward mathematical ends. Other OLPC leaders said some terrible things about teachers early on -- more than one said that most teachers were drunk or absentee, for instance -- but local projects, including Paraguay Educa (the local NGO in charge the OLPC project in Paraguay), conducted teacher training sessions and expected teachers to use the laptops in classrooms. At the same time, OLPC and many local OLPC projects, including Paraguay Educa's, talked about how the most interesting things kids would do with their laptops would probably happen outside of classrooms, and that they would soon leapfrog past their teachers in ability. 

I can't fully resolve this paradox, but I can say that keeping the social imaginary of the school-as-factory alive is pretty valuable to many ed-tech projects that promise to overhaul an educational system that seems to be both in urgent need of fixing and receptive to quick technological fixes. However, it's one thing to paint a rosy picture of the possibilities for technologically-driven educational reform without the need for teacher buy-in -- but then when it comes down to actually implementing a reform effort, teachers become a necessary part of the project, because ultimately they are a necessary part of learning.

What are some of the important differences between the schools described in the rhetoric around OLPC and the actual schools you encountered on the ground? 

Negroponte exhibited some very wishful thinking in justifying the costs of the program. He'd tell governments that they should think of this as equivalent to a textbook, and put their textbook budget into this program. Amortized over five years, he said, a hundred-dollar laptop would be equivalent to the twenty dollars per year per student that Brazil, China, and other places budgeted for textbooks. But I found only one school in Paraguay that consistently used textbooks, and it was because they were sponsored by an evangelical church in Texas. If schools had any, they had some very old textbooks that were kept in the front office for teachers' reference only. Most teachers wrote lessons on a blackboard, and students copied them into notebooks that they were responsible for buying. 

Papert had a version of this analogy as well -- but instead of textbooks, he equated computers with pencils. You wouldn't give a classroom one pencil to share, he would say derisively -- but even if OLPC's XO laptop had actually been $100 rather than close to $200, that's a far cry from a ten-cent pencil. Moreover, even ten-cent pencils were items that not all Paraguayan students could consistently afford. A good portion of Paraguay's population are subsistence farmers and the Paraguayan school system has been underfunded for many decades now; some schools don't have working toilets, and none provide photocopiers, paper, or even toilet paper or soap. Most classrooms did not have plugs for charging laptops or WiFi routers -- the schools, with the help of local project leaders and parent volunteers, had to install those. And in some cases, the wiring that they used was mislabeled, so the plugs failed.


Despite these rough conditions, many teachers really did care about teaching -- they were not "drunk or absent entirely," as Negroponte once claimed. But much like teachers in the U.S., they were beset from all sides by demands for their time, they were very underpaid, and many exhibited signs of burnout. Even so, some were really excited about the project, but most really didn't have the time they would have needed to integrate a difficult-to-use laptop into their curriculum. In the book I include several vignettes from my fieldwork that describe in detail how these teachers would struggle to use laptops for lessons in spite of broken machines, uninstalled software, slow networks, and quickly-draining batteries. It's no wonder that nearly all gave up in time.

The Constructionist paradigm leads us to see the web and media use as “distractions” from the core OLPC mission at the same time as the MacArthur Foundation’s Digital Media and Learning initiative was emphasizing the kinds of learning which could take place around games, social media, and participatory culture more generally. How would your results look if read through this different frame? 

Aside from some fairly abstract discussions of the virtues of videogames, constructionism generally doesn't really discuss media use -- it seems to exist in a cultural vacuum where students encounter a Platonic (or perhaps Papertian?) ideal of a computer with nothing but LOGO, and maybe Wikipedia, on it. But the connected learning framework -- which, in the spirit of cultural studies, takes children's interests and media worlds seriously as ideal starting-points for learning -- was very much on my own mind throughout my fieldwork and analysis. And I was deeply impressed by the ways some kids found innovative ways around the XO's hardware and software limitations, and the ways that a new video or music file would spread, student to student, through schools. 

The piece that was largely missing, though, was a way to bridge those interests with learning outcomes like literacy, numeracy, and critical thinking that are important for effectively navigating the world. A handful of parents and teachers had ideas about how to shape their children's interests toward more learning-oriented ends, and I have a chapter devoted to their stories. But they were the exception, not the norm.  

Moreover, I would bring a critical media studies lens to this as well, and ask just what kind of influence advertisers including Nestle, Nickelodeon, and more should have in children's educations. These companies developed content specifically for the XO laptop that was widely popular during my fieldwork, and thus had preferential access to children via an avenue that most considered "educational." While I love the connected learning approach of really centering children's cultures in the learning process, I am very critical of companies' efforts to make money off of that.  


Morgan G. Ames researches the ideological origins of inequality in the technology world, with a focus on utopianism, childhood, and learning. Her book The Charisma Machine: The Life, Death, and Legacy of One Laptop per Child (MIT Press, 2019) draws on archival research and a seven-month ethnography in Paraguay to explore the cultural history, results, and legacy of the OLPC project -- and what it tells us about the many other technology projects that draw on similar utopian ideals. Morgan is an assistant adjunct professor in the School of Information and interim associate director of research for the Center for Science, Technology, Medicine and Society at the University of California, Berkeley, where she teaches in Data Science and administers the Designated Emphasis in Science and Technology Studies."



Interview with Morgan G. Ames on 'The Charisma Machine: The Life, Death, and Legacy of One Laptop Per Child' (Part I)


Earlier this year, I met Morgan G. Ames, who has recently published The Charisma Machine, which deals with the MIT Media Lab and the one-laptop-per-child initiative, which was perhaps the iconic project at the lab during the time I was at MIT. Our brief conversation brought back a flood of memories of my interactions with faculty and students there and of some of the intellectual debates I was having at the time these projects were unfolding. Reading her book brought back an even more intense flood of memories. So, I approached her about doing this interview months ago.

Her writing is fair-minded and generous but also critical of the project and how it worked on the ground in Latin America. She digs deep into the thinking behind the project, its links to a particular way of thinking about computing, its demonstration of the limits of a certain top-down mindset that is common to many U.S. based technology--based learning initiatives, and the gap between the Global North and South in terms of the realities of what happens inside and outside schools. The questions here are important ones that need to be considered both within the Media Lab and far beyond it.

I've hesitated about sharing this interview right now given the current turmoil the Lab is undergoing in the wake of the news of its affiliations with Jeffrey Epstein. I don't want this discussion, which has nothing to do with that one, to be understood as piling on. I admire the courage of Ethan Zuckerman and others at the lab who have publicly protested the choices made by the Lab and MIT leadership in this case. I celebrate the women who have stepped up to confront the misogyny that permeates many aspects of MIT culture. Yet, I also maintain fondness for old friends who have found themselves caught up in this mess and who have in some cases made some really bad decisions. This interview focuses on a different moment in the Lab's history and reflects a conversation being held before this scandal erupted.


Explain the book’s title. In what sense was the One Laptop Per Child  “a Charisma Machine”? What are the implications of applying a term like Charisma, which has historically been so closely associated with the qualities of human leaders, to talk about technologies?

When I first started following the One Laptop per Child project way back in 2008, I was fascinated by how alluring the project's "XO" laptop seemed to be for many contributors and others across the tech industry. OLPC had very ambitious ideas for how its laptop should be used by children across the Global South, and what the results would be -- and I found that the laptop itself came to stand for those ideas for many people. I started thinking about how the laptop began to have its own kind of authority in these circles: even mentioning it came to stand in for a particular kind of joyful, technically deep experience they wanted more children to have with computers.  

I turned to sociological theory to help make sense of this, going all the way back to one of the founders of modern sociology -- Max Weber -- who outlined and described different kinds of authority. Charismatic authority is something that religious or cult leaders may have -- they may not have the weight of an institution like the government behind them, or the weight of tradition to lean on, yet they still seem to command a following.  

On the one hand, some of OLPC's leaders were certainly charismatic -- Nicholas Negroponte in particular has been the public face of the project, and his charisma was important for promoting it, just as his charisma helped build the MIT Media Lab in its first two decades. But in many of the places OLPC was taken up, Negroponte wasn't necessarily well-known or, in some cases, really known at all. In these cases, OLPC's "XO" laptop itself came to stand for OLPC's ideas. 

When I think about how "charisma" might apply to machines, I think about how science and technology studies (or STS) has shown that machines can have agency: they can take on meanings and act on the world beyond the intentions of their designers. I also think about how STS, and the social sciences more broadly, discuss authority not as some kind of divine or "natural" thing, but something that is produced by a whole set of social choices and technical constraints that already exist. So when I call OLPC's laptop "charismatic," it's not in a hero-worship kind of sense -- it's a first step in calling attention to the ways that many have taken its allure for granted, and how that allure was created. 

You note that African countries were resistant from the start to the OLPC project and that 80 percent of the laptops produced were deployed to Latin American countries. Why were Latin American countries more receptive than African countries, given Negroponte’s project to transform the Global South?

 At the flashy debut of what was then the "hundred dollar laptop" at 2005 World Summit on the Information Society, the African delegation immediately voiced concerns about the environmental impacts of these machines and their very real potential to further the ongoing imperialism of the Global North across Africa. Moreover, the governments of many African countries OLPC approached in the years following just didn't have the budget to put toward this project -- and that's even just buying the laptops, not the significant infrastructural and maintenance costs that were required to sustain it. (Though Negroponte repeatedly said that governments could "give out laptops and walk away," most clearly knew that that wasn't realistic.) The one non-pilot project in Africa was in Rwanda, which did eventually buy some 250,000 of OLPC's "XO" laptops. But that's a far cry from the hundreds of millions of laptops that OLPC had initially aimed for. 

In Latin America, however, OLPC's mission fit very well with a longstanding interest in open-source software, and most Latin American countries are at least "middle-income" by World Bank measures. So while OLPC's early promotional photos often featured smiling African children, it was mostly Latin American countries with the resources and interest to take it up. And even within Latin America, it's really two countries -- Uruguay and Peru -- that together purchased nearly three quarters of the XO's in the world, around one million laptops each. Other projects -- including Paraguay's, where I spent by far the most time doing fieldwork -- were much smaller, generally on the order of tens of thousands of laptops. 

The MIT Media Lab has long been celebrated for its roles in “inventing the future,” yet your analysis focuses a lot on the nostalgic dimensions of the devices it created. In what senses was OLPC nostalgic? What was it nostalgic for? How do we reconcile the competing pulls towards futurism and nostalgia? 

This was one of the great ironies of this project, and of many charismatic technology projects, especially in education. These charismatic projects may paint visions of a utopian future, but in order to be charismatic they have to appeal to parts of the world that are familiar to those they want to reach.  

For OLPC, that was the childhood experiences with computers that many techies, especially those who consider themselves part of the "hacker" community, fondly recount from their own childhoods. In the early years of OLPC, I read through dozens, even hundreds of discussions about OLPC among project contributors and across the web that directly compared OLPC's XO laptop to Commodores, Amigas, Apple IIs, and other early computing systems that many of them had used decades before.

The specifications of these older systems were even used, in part, to justify making the XO laptop really underpowered. Reducing the laptop's energy usage was a driving goal, but the justification I heard was that these old systems didn't need fancy graphics or lots of memory to be captivating, so why does the XO need them? This ended up creating huge problems in use, though -- most kids today don't really care about those older systems, after all. They want a computer that could take advantage of the media-rich web, and the XO just couldn't deliver there.

In this way, as I argue throughout the book, charisma is ultimately "conservative" -- it may promise to quickly and painlessly transform our lives for the better, but it is appealing because it just amplifies existing values and ideologies. In OLPC's case, it promoted a vision of the world where children across the Global South would have the opportunity to have the same kinds of formative experiences with a computer that these adults remembered having.


Morgan G. Ames researches the ideological origins of inequality in the technology world, with a focus on utopianism, childhood, and learning. Her book The Charisma Machine: The Life, Death, and Legacy of One Laptop per Child (MIT Press, 2019) draws on archival research and a seven-month ethnography in Paraguay to explore the cultural history, results, and legacy of the OLPC project -- and what it tells us about the many other technology projects that draw on similar utopian ideals. Morgan is an assistant adjunct professor in the School of Information and interim associate director of research for the Center for Science, Technology, Medicine and Society at the University of California, Berkeley, where she teaches in Data Science and administers the Designated Emphasis in Science and Technology Studies."



Comic Books Incorporated: Interview with Shawna Kidman

Every so often, you teach a class where the gestalt is just right. When I first arrived at USC, I agreed to teach an independent study with a group of students — from three different universities — who wanted to learn more about fandom and participatory culture. One of those students — Flourish Klink — skyped in from MIT, since she had come to the Comparative Media Studies program to study under me and I had left her high and dry. Today, Klink is the co-host of the Fansplaining podcast and consults with major entertainment franchises about their fan relations. A second — Aymar Jean Christian —who skyped in from the University of Pennsylvania has since written and published Open TV: Innovation Beyond Hollywood and The Rise of Web Television. My new colleagues in the USC Cinema School sent over their best and brightest. Taylor Nygaard is now a feminist television scholar on the faculty at Arizona State University and finishing work on a book dealing with Pinterest as a platform. And Shawna Kidman has recently published Comic Books Incorporated: How The Business of Comics Became the Business of Hollywood.

I should just retire now.

Kidman entered the seminar having already worked for several years within the comics publishing world. I recall her as being the most skeptical student in the lot, her experiences within the industry coloring how she perceived media audiences. Her new book asks equally tough questions, representing a major contribution not only to our understanding of the history of American comics, but to media industry studies more generally.

As the title suggests, there is no question that the comics industry exerts a strong influence today over decisions made in the film, television, and games industry and more than that, she shows us the ways that ideas that emerged in comics publishing are now playing themselves out in terms of the structures of those industries also. She questions the established wisdom about the comics scare of the 1950s, the legal battles over Superman’s authorship, the rise of HBO original programming, the place of underground comics, and more generally, claims about the subversive or subcultural status of comics as a medium.

She’s done the original research, she brings a media industries perspective, and she does the hard work of constructing and supporting revisionist arguments throughout. As one of her teachers, I could not be more proud..

Part of your personal narrative has been a shift from working in the comics industry to becoming a media scholar. How did your earlier experiences inform the approach you took in this book?

Yes, my first encounter with comic books was as a worker, not as an academic, and not as a fan. Part of why DC Comics hired me was actually because I didn’t fit the profile of most of their job applicants; I wasn’t steeped in comic book culture and I didn’t have a typical fanboy/fangirl perspective. But I did have a media background—I’d had jobs in film development and film financing during and after college. That helped me to understand the Hollywood folk the company was interacting with, and that’s really what DC needed around 2005 when it was trying to improve its west coast presence. During the few years I was there, first as an assistant and later as a creative executive, I got a crash course in comics and read a ton. I spent a lot of time with editors, met a lot of writers and artists—it was amazing. But I learned more about the business side, since that was what got me the most excited.

I think this separates me from a lot of scholars in this space, who are drawn to comic books because they love the medium. It was the dynamism of the industry that I loved. The maneuverings and politics were endlessly fascinating, because they seemed like a little window into the heart of Hollywood: small subsidiary vs. major conglomerate, creators vs. executives, original stories vs. pre-sold content, and the never-ending effort to milk the life out of every single product, whether or not it was popular. I was also a history geek, so I read everything that Les Daniels wrote, and the Gerard Jones’ book, and anything else I could get my hands on. But all of those guys, even though they told great stories, largely ignored the business. And because I was witnessing it first hand, seeing how the decisions were getting made behind closed doors, I knew there was more to it—that part of the story they were telling must have gotten lost. That nagging feeling stuck with me. But I didn’t have the language or conceptual background to articulate what the story was, or how it fit in to the big picture.

That’s when I decided to go to grad school for Media Studies, which basically meant “film and television”. Still, I thought about comic books every day. Everything I had learned while working was so relevant and seemed to give me this unique insight into art, and history, and Hollywood. That notion, that I had something to say because I had been a worker, and that industry dynamics matter in the creation of culture, pushed me towards Industry Studies as a subfield. I learned everything I could about regulation, distribution, and intellectual property. And slowly, with this new vocabulary, I was able to start giving context to my work experiences, and put it together in a coherent narrative. Of course, it took about a decade more of research to actually get there.



While you write about comics history here, you see yourself more broadly as a scholar of media industries. What can a close study of the comics industry help us to understand about other creative/media industries?

Yes, media industries is, in an everyday sense, my area of practice. I worked in the media business, I was trained in media studies, I read about the media business, I teach classes about media and the media business, I consume media. Today, all of this necessarily means being media-neutral. It makes no sense, and is actually kind of impossible, to take an interest only in television, or film, or streaming, or interactive, because the lines between all of these spaces have become so blurry. This is especially true for those of us who look at the business side, where these barriers are even more fluid. For me, comic books are very clearly a part of this media jumble, and accordingly, they deserve serious attention from media scholars. For example, I don’t see how someone could fully comprehend the global theatrical market today without understanding something about the way comic book companies like Disney and AT&T manage their intellectual property. And if you don’t typically think of Disney and AT&T as comic book companies, then you’re already working with too limited a scope.

That said, my book is a history, and most people think the media business hasn’t always been quite so blurry. But there were never strict media siloes. There was not a time in the history of mass culture when producers in one medium weren’t constantly looking over their shoulder at other media, checking out the competition, borrowing, selling, merging, jumping ship, jumping back; this merging is a huge part of the history of mass media. And that is especially clear when you look at comic books. So the first reason it’s a great media case study is that it reveals the extent to which commercial entertainment has always been a transmedia affair. Comics publishing was a relatively small business, and since it was under constant threat (declining sales, deteriorating distribution, labor problems, tough financials), it was forced to live in the margins of the entertainment industry, the in-between spaces of more profitable media companies, merging, borrowing, scrounging for its future; it was a scrappy business.

By the 1970s, comic book companies were in fact no longer primarily publishers. They were toy licensers, cartoon producers, feature film developers. Or in other words, they were intellectual property (IP) companies, long before that was even a thing. So as the entertainment industry shifted toward franchises and brands during the 1980s and 1990s, and then gradually reoriented itself around IP management and exploitation, comic books increasingly moved to the center of mainstream media production. This is the second reason why it’s a great media case study—comics have of course provided a lot of source material for contemporary media, but more interesting than that (at least for me), the business works as a kind of pre-history for the franchise era we’re currently in.



Throughout the book, you push back against the idea that comics are “fundamentally subversive, subcultural, and resistant” in favor of a focus on the idea that “the infrastructures of comics and large, belong to and are controlled by the comics industry.” What kinds of infrastructures do you have in mind?  Is the idea of a medium being “subcultural” necessarily at odds with a medium being “corporate”?

So to really answer this, I have to get into a little bit of theory. If your definition of “subculture” is simply a smaller cultural group within a larger one—a cultural “subdivision”—then that subculture can be anything, and have any attribute. But within the field of Cultural Studies, the concept of “subculture” is a lot more specific and refers to the culture of a subordinate group; a subculture is thus necessarily a cultural community that lacks power, one that is not hegemonic or dominant. When we’re looking at comic book culture writ large, we’re primarily talking about the stuff published by DC and Marvel (and also Dell, Harvey, Image, Dark Horse, IDW, and many others). This is culture produced by corporations with legal teams, with access to established institutions (universities, museums, etc.), with access to financial capital, and with relationships to Hollywood. Publishing is a tough business, so not all of these companies succeed or post huge profits. But that doesn’t mean they are powerless or that the individuals running them could be considered “subordinated”.

This remains true even when these corporations produce comics that are dark, or controversial, or meta. They may seem subversive, but these works are part and parcel of mainstream or hegemonic culture. In fact, part of what makes our dominant culture so effective is its ability to incorporate and draw from stuff on the margins, stuff that seams resistant, but doesn’t actually upset any power imbalances. So a dark and twisted version of Superman, or a politically themed graphic novel that wins a Pulitzer Prize—these don’t strike me as being particularly subversive or subcultural texts. Of course, when you look at both the long history and the current scope of comic book culture, there are certainly moments of subversiveness and pockets of resistance—the work of the Underground in the late 1960s, elements of the alternative press in the 1980s, self-published graphic novels today, etc. But after researching this book, I don’t believe that these pockets are representative of the medium; I think they’re exceptions and that comic book culture has, for the most part, emanated from a place of power.

This is where my focus on industry infrastructure was really eye-opening. (And by industry infrastructure, I mean the parts of the business that usually go unnoticed—the everyday practices and systems that give shape to workplaces, and that ultimately have a huge impact on the media produced. It’s one thing for an artist to draw an image, and quite another for that image to become a product, to enter into circulation to be sold and consumed. That transformation doesn’t happen without help from some matrix of organizational bureaucracies, legal frameworks, financing structures, and distribution networks, or what I refer to as “industry infrastructure”.) When you look at the infrastructural history of comic books, aspects of the culture and the business that may at first have seemed like confirmation of comics’ subversiveness start looking like something quite different. This wasn’t something I set out to argue when I started researching the book, but every case study I got into ended up moving in this direction.

For example, consider the comic book community’s collective excitement around creator rights, the widespread support for Jack Kirby’s claims against Disney, and fans and creators coming to the rescue of Siegel & Shuster in their fight for ownership of Superman. These struggles seem to many like the embodiment of resistance against corporate culture. But when you look at the nuances—the court decisions, the terms of the contracts, the outcomes of the labor struggles, the profit breakdowns—things become a lot murkier. I discuss all of this in my chapter about creative labor and copyright, and I ultimately argue that what may seem like creator “resistance” often helps corporate IP owners shore up their copyright claims. And the relationship between some dissident creators and the corporations they publicly oppose tends to be a lot more symbiotic than we’re often comfortable acknowledging.



Many of your chapters revisit the traditional story of comics history with its heroes and villains showing how our understanding of these events shifts if we focus on industrial developments. How, for example, does your approach lead to different conclusions about the comics crisis in the 1950s?

Most accounts of the 1950s focus on Fredric Wertham. He accused comic books of having indecent content and he fought to limit their circulation. His crusade supposedly led to a code of censorship that altered content and caused a steep decline in sales. I took Wertham’s legacy seriously when I began my research, but it wasn’t long before I realized his significance had been vastly overstated. This was a man who was not well respected by scholars, who was quickly forgotten by the mainstream press, and who was largely ignored by politicians, even though they briefly brought him national attention.

This becomes pretty clear when you look at the congressional investigation into comic books. The public hearings started with Wertham and his claims around juvenile delinquency, and that’s the part most people remember. But these hearings moved on to other business matters pretty quickly. The resulting transcripts are a treasure trove of fascinating details about the day-to-day practices of the industry. Reading through it, I found that publishers were facing a perfect storm of problems: not just bad press, but competition from television, an overcrowded market, and a breakdown in the distribution network. As is often true in media, it was distribution that turned out to be the biggest challenge. It’s easy to ignore distribution networks when they’re functioning properly; like other aspects of infrastructure, their nature is to fade into the background. But as soon as they break down, as they did in the magazines and comics business in the 1950s, everyone realizes how important they are. At the time, it seems like that was all anyone could talk about. The Congressional hearings, the trade press, the memos between executives—it was all about solving distribution.

The censorship code, meanwhile, turns out to have been something of a smokescreen. It was developed by the big publishers, who disregarded nearly all of Wertham’s arguments about indecency. That didn’t seem to matter though. Merely by embracing the concept of self-censorship, regardless of the specifics, they were able to get Congress off their backs and change the public narrative. The Code, meanwhile, allowed a struggling distribution business, part of which was vertically integrated with publishing, to limit and better control the content pipeline. With the Code, distributors could more easily refuse comics from smaller publishers in order to give preferential treatment to their own material. They recalibrated a shrinking market in their own favor. This of course is a familiar story. Sixty years later, we’re still dealing with vertical integration and with distributors who give preferential access to their own content.



What might your approach tell us about the role which Stan Lee has played in recent decades in helping to authorize the MCU films?

I’m glad you asked this because I don’t write much about Stan Lee in the book. I wanted to shift attention away from individuals and towards systems and structures. That said, Stan Lee was unquestionably an innovator and had a significant impact on the medium and on modern fandom. Back in the 1960s, he created an incredibly compelling public persona, a literal character in some instances, which he inserted into the comic books themselves. And he used that to cultivate a very personal relationship with readers, who grew deeply connected with the Marvel brand through him. That personal connection to a living breathing individual mattered to fans then, and it matters to fans today too.

Which is why I think Stan Lee’s legacy is still so significant for audiences, although I would argue that the mantle has largely been passed to Kevin Feige. It’s worth mentioning though, that this role that Feige and Lee fill—putting a human face on a cherished brand—isn’t necessarily about authorship or creativity in the traditional sense. Lee did of course help create Marvel’s marquee characters, but it’s hard to know exactly what his role in that creative process was (especially given the heavy mythologizing around the Marvel Method, not to mention all the litigation), and how much of these characters’ inventiveness can be attributed to him individually. The same can be said about Feige. We know he plays a role in the creative process of the MCU, but we can’t actually pinpoint his contributions. It seems like the thing that actually most distinguishes both Feige-produced films and Lee-created comics are their tone—relatable, cheeky, humorous, but never condescending. That tone defines the Marvel brand, and Lee and Feige’s participation as creators or auteurs has helped humanize that brand and give it a kind of cultural legitimation (which arguably has been the primary task of all cinematic auteurs; Foucault and many others see this purpose as part of the “author function”).

I’m actually writing a new piece about this topic right now, and what’s becoming clear is that the rise of figures like Lee and Feige, creatives who are ultimately known more for their work as executives (managing creative teams, representing the corporate brand, establishing a house tone or style), tracks pretty closely with the rise of franchise culture. As expanding story universes have replaced the old production model—isolated films and TV series—we’ve seen the story-overseers, typically producers and executives by trade, become more important than directors, whose names used to sell movies.



You discuss comics fans as “privileged,” which would seem to be the exact opposite of John Tulloch’s concept of television fans as a “powerless elite.” In what sense are comics fans privileged and how is their influence felt within the comics industry?

Yes, this is definitely true. I believe that comic book fans are privileged in many ways, so much so that I don’t really consider them to be a subculture at all. I’ll stick to just two points though, which I think most directly address Tulloch’s argument. First, comic book fans are very well represented in the film and television industry, disproportionately so. Comic book publishers estimate the comic-book-reading audience in the US at two million people, or less than 1% of the population. Now if you spend any time in Hollywood, you quickly realize that way more than 1% of the people are reading comic books. Sure, some of them are just looking for source material, and some of them may be overstating their reading habits, but even so, it’s an extremely well-regarded medium within that creative community. This is even more true when you look at the upper echelons of the entertainment business. A huge portion of the guys who have been dominating Hollywood for the last thirty years are lifelong comic book fans. Now this may be for good reason—comic book reading could theoretically improve creative thinking and thus statistically increase the likelihood of someone ending up with a career in media. Regardless, I think you would be incredibly hard pressed to argue that comic book fans are a population that lack access to cultural production or decision making.

Second, even comic book fans who are just fans—who have no role in the media business and don’t desire any—get a kind of preferential treatment in Hollywood that is, again, disproportionate with the community’s actual size. By this, I mean that media gatekeepers typically take the opinions of comic book fans more seriously than they do those of other interest groups or cultural communities. There are many reasons for this. For starters, comic book fans often fall into what some consider the “right” demographics—young, male, white, educated—so advertisers are willing to pay more for them. Many comic book fans have also been early adopters of technology. So a fan presence was established early on the web and remains highly visible. This is one of the reasons Hollywood flocked to San Diego Comic-Con in the early 2000s—they wanted online fan support (this has changed a bit in recent years, but that’s a discussion for another day).

Of course, comic book fans are not all-powerful and they are not one thing—this is a heterogeneous constituency that is sometimes heard, sometimes not. But if you identify as a comic book fan, you are generally far more likely to be catered to by mainstream media producers, and your criticisms are far more likely to be heard, than would be the case if, say, you identified as a hip-hop fan or a reader of romance novels. Relatively speaking, comic book fans are among the most powerful consumers of media out there. Which is part of why comic book adaptations are so incredibly prevalent across film, television, and gaming.

Your book keeps its focus fairly tightly on the American comics industry but Hollywood increasingly factors global box office into its model of commercial success. What role have these global calculations played in shaping the current moment of superhero blockbusters?

The global box office plays a very significant role in the spread of comic book IP. In fact, most of the big superhero movies make more abroad than they do in the US, and this has always been true. Even back in 1978, Superman made more money in foreign theaters than domestic. Of course, many executives in Hollywood are familiar with this general track record, which supports the widespread notion that effects-driven action films just play better globally. The rule-of-thumb has been that, unlike comedies and dramas, they’re not dialogue driven (which is helpful when there’s language barriers) and they lack social and emotional nuance (which is helpful when there’s cultural barriers).

I think this logic drove a lot of production decisions in the early 2000s when the studios started pursuing global markets more aggressively. At the time, there were a number of additional factors fueling interest in comic book source material (all of which I cover in the book). I think, at first, the pressure to hit globally was no more significant than any of these other causes. But in the last decade and a half, the international market has continued to grow, and today, I think it is perhaps the biggest driver of this genre. It was a kind of circular logic that got us to this point: these effects films were always very expensive, so they had to find international success, which grew the market, fueling a need and a desire for more global blockbusters, with ever-growing budgets, further necessitating more international success, growing the market, etc., etc.

The thing is, I don’t find the initial argument particularly compelling. The notion that comedies and dramas won’t sell abroad is a lot like the idea that “black films don’t travel”. It’s been proven to be wrong again and again, but for some reason, continues to guide decision-making. It’s also not clear to me that international audiences prefer superhero films to other genres. All we can know for sure is that superhero films, backed by aggressive marketing and distribution efforts, have found massive audiences. Could other genres find those same sized audiences if given the chance? I don’t know. Will Hollywood ever put superhero dollars into non-superhero films and give it a try? I don’t know that either. The executives at Disney do though, and given the market right now, it’s completely up to them.



Shawna Kidman is an Assistant Professor of Communication at UC San Diego where she teaches courses in media studies. Her research on the media industries has been published in Velvet Light Trap, the International Journal of Learning and Media, and the International Journal of Communication. She is the author of Comic Books Incorporated (UC Press, 2019), a history of the U.S. comic book industry and its seventy year convergence with the film and television business.


Emergent Media and Presidential Politics (in the 1890s): A Conversation with Charles Musser (Part II)

Continuing a conversation with Charles Musser regarding his recent book Politicking and Emergent Media: U.S. Presidential Elections of the 1890s (University of California Press, 2016).


While new platforms make possible new communication strategies, different candidates, then as now, make different choices about how to deploy those media towards their own goals. Thus, we have seen Obama and Trump deploy social media in different ways. What differences did you find in the way that the candidates deployed, say, the Stereopticon to reach their desired publics? What different notions of civic participation animated those strategies? 

The Republicans wholeheartedly embraced the stereopticon. Judge John L. Wheeler’s pioneering illustrated lecture The Tariff Illustrated (1888), which advocated for a protective tariff—the Republicans’ central campaign issue, is really the first political or campaign documentary…a direct progenitor of Robert Greenwald’s Uncovered: The War on Iraq (2003) and Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004).  Republicans largely credited Wheeler’s lecture for Benjamin Harrison’s defeat of President Grover Cleveland. Targeting the swing state of New York, it was reportedly seen by 174,000 people while Harrison carried the state by 15,000 votes. Four years later Republicans utilized an updated version delivered by at least five different lecturers as a central campaign weapon. While doubling the number of audience members, they much less success as Cleveland won the rematch. Republicans used the stereopticon lecture yet again in 1896 in the Chicago area where it had not previously been used (Illinois was then considerd the key swing state). Moreover, stereopticon lectures proved very effective in the lead up to the 1900 election with appropriately new subject matter—programs on the Spanish-American and Philippine-American wars––advocating for McKinley’s imperialistic stance.   

The Democrats were much less interested because they believed they had the major newspapers on their side—which was true until it wasn’t, specifically in 1896 and 1900.  But in 1892, many of the Democratic newspapers were prepared to counter Republican efforts and offered mocking critiques of the updated The Tariff Illustrated (1892).  Nevertheless, there was no Democratic equivalent.  Democrats like Republicans did use the stereopticon as a form of outdoor advertising.  In the evening they would project slogans onto outdoor screens, for instance, attacking the Republican’s protective tariff with “Protectionism is the art of taxing the many for the benefit of the few.” Political cartoons were also commonly shown. This had the virtue and limitation of reaching city strollers of all political stripes. However, their value was modest–- part of the campaign milieu that included campaign buttons, banners and posters.  

We have watched the role of the Internet deepen with each election cycle as it reaches a broader cross-section of voters, as candidates learn how to use it, and as it gains visibility in relation to more established mass media outlets. Was the same thing happening in the elections of the 1890s in terms of the different roles these media play in subsequent campaign cycles? 

While I would agree with the first part of your statement, “We have watched the role of the internet deepen with each election cycle as it reaches a broader cross-section of voters,” I am not sure that I entirely agree that candidates as a group have learned how to use it more effectively over time. Obama’s campaigns knew how to creatively mobilize YouTube and video steaming but it was so new they had to figure it out for themselves. But YouTube did not play a significant role in 2016. Hillary Clinton and her campaign staff never learned how to use the media of any variety with above average effectiveness. Romney was done in by the iPhone which surreptitiously recorded confidential talk to potential rightwing donors. The early 2020 Democratic presidential primary debates repeat many of the same problems evident in their Republican counterparts four years earlier. I am not sure that future candidates will learn from Trump and become skillful masters of Twitter. Alexandra Octavio Cortez is the only Democrat who seems to have comparable talents though to quite different ends. It’s too early to guess if she will run for president and if that will be her preeminent media weapon. 

Historical perspective can remind us that the more things change the more they stay the same. Tariffs have become as much of an issue today as they were in the 1880s and 1890s. Who knew? Moreover, there was an obvious if painful analogy between 1884 campaign and the 2016 fracas. A damming letter to Republican candidate James Blaine was made public. At the bottom was a note: “Burn this letter.”  His Democratic candidate Grover Cleveland was said to have fathered a child out of wedlock. The Democratic chant was “Burn, Burn, Burn this letter.” The Republican counterpart was “Ma, Ma, where’s my Pa?” The candidate who had mail that needed destruction lost to the person with a problematic sexual history. Could history repeat itself in 2016? Indeed, it did: Hillary’s erased emails outdid Trump’s sexual shenanigans. Snail mail and email seem to have made little difference. 

As a student of political history, I knew about William McKinley’s back porch campaign, but I did not know the various ways he used new communication technology -- not only cinema but the telephone -- to reach out to voters across the country. Tell us more. 

McKinley was the Republican’s premiere orator but he believed he was no match for Democrat William Jennings Bryan. The last thing he wanted to have happen was to go around the country giving speeches with Bryan in his wake. So, he decided to act presidential, stay home and conduct a front porch campaign from his home in Canton, Ohio, even as Bryan toured the country by railroad giving numerous speeches. The difference was striking but also complementary. Bryan used the railroad to get to the people, while the people used the railroad to get to McKinley. They both ended up giving numerous speeches—far, far more than Cleveland or Harrison ever did. Still there were serious drawbacks to McKinley strategy. Presidential candidates were expected to make strategic appearances at key rallies organized in large cities. With Illinois expected to be the crucial swing state in 1896, a huge McKinley rally was organized for Chicago on Chicago Day. Republicans tried to make it an official city holiday. They failed, but employers were encouraged to give their employees the day off if they attended the festivities. McKinley was under immense pressure to make an exception and to attend, but he knew that if he made one exception, he would have to make many more. So, he declined. The techies of 1896 then came up with at least two ingenious solutions. First, with the long-distance phone lines recently installed between New York and Chicago and with McKinley plugged into this new communication system, they installed telephone receivers by the reviewing stand where he should have been located. When loyal Republicans marched by, they were encouraged to shout into the receivers and have their words heard by McKinley in Canton—and his vice-presidential candidate in New York. It was as if McKinley was in Chicago—or more accurately that their voices magically joined McKinley in Canton. The idea was a success and quickly repeated in other major cities such as Pittsburgh and New York. 

Motion pictures did the reverse. Abner McKinley brought the Biograph team to Canton where they filmed McKinley in front of his home apparently receiving a telegram. When McKinley at Home was first shown at Oscar Hammerstein’s Olympia Music Hall on October 12th, it was as if McKinley and his home had been magically transported to a theater filled with prominent Republicans and other supporters. Vice presidential candidate Garett Hobart, was expected to be present and shout out a “Hi, Bill” to his running mate. (The elderly Hobart, however, had apparently had enough with new technology when he listened in on the Chicago rally via telephone and did not bother to appear.) In any case, a virtual McKinley was able to stand in for the candidate himself. Moreover, his virtual-self made regular appearances at the Olympia and then Koster & Bial’s Music Hall, where pro-McKinley rallies continues for the next month. New York City actually went for McKinley. New media didn’t just solve a problem, they added something more. The Republicans evidently knew how to innovate. Surely they would find a way to get the United States out of a protracted four-year depression.   

Early accounts have tended to treat McKinley at Home as an isolated text. But building on your earlier work which looked at exhibitors as constructing an assemblage of short films you make the case that it should be read in relation to other films shown on the same program. Can you speak a bit more here about the way the McKinley film fit within a larger flow of ideas?

Biograph was a fully integrated company (production-distribution-exhibition) that had full control over the programs it produced, and its creative personnel knew how to make use of that centralized control. We somehow have this view that those involved in cinema were naïve and struggling to find their way—that they just assembled films into some kind of random order because they didn’t know better. In short, editing had yet to be invented and cinema of the 1890s was all about the isolated image as a kind of attraction. In fact, when it came to audio-visual programs, post-production was in the hands of the exhibitor and there was plenty of experience in this area. The Biograph company thus presented a carefully calculated and powerful pro-McKinley motion picture program which made a series of calculated and impressive analogies. McKinley’s image was wrapped in a series of quintessential images of America. These included the legendary actor Joseph Jefferson in a scene from Rip Van Winkle and two scenes of Niagara Falls. There was also a good all-American racial “joke” as an African American woman washes her baby, who despite her best efforts does not become any whiter. All this led up to a McKinley parade in Canton and culminated with McKinley at Home. During a press screening, McKinley at Home was shown last but it was upstaged by The Empire State Express. So, in a strategic move Empire State Express was shown last. It showed America’s famed express train—a technological marvel in itself, depicted dynamically as it raced towards and past the camera and so viewers. But the train, like the Empire State (New York) was also racing ahead for McKinley. Thus, a series of associations or substitutions—American grandeur, American railway technology, Biograph’s superior motion picture technology, and McKinley as a future mythic president. I see this as a prescient form of montage of attractions not simply at cinema of attractions. The onrushing express is like the final shot of Potemkin—the prow of an onrushing battleship. 

What did or did not work about William Jennings Bryant’s attempts to expand the reach of his famous oratorical skills using the phonograph? 

If motion pictures were seen as the new media dominated by Republicans, the phonograph was viewed as the new media technology ideally suited for Bryan’s talents. In fact, there were numerous technological problems and limitations to phonographic reproduction and production--as well as the brief playtime of a recording—that belied such an assumption. Because Bryan had achieved a special status as an orator and won the Democratic nomination with his “Cross of Gold” speech, people certainly wanted to hear him and were ready to go to phonograph parlors to do so.  Although many did hear a small selection of Bryan’s speeches in phonograph parlors during the 1896 campaign, the orator was not Bryan. Correspondingly, they could hear a few excerpts of McKinley’s speeches, but they were not spoken by McKinley.  Speakers specifically trained and paid by the phonograph companies provided the voices. Visitors to phonograph parlors often made quick comparisons, sampling recordings for both candidates. Remember, however, that the phonograph companies were generally pro-McKinley. Some reports suggest that Bryan’s speeches may have been subtly burlesqued in their re-presentation. It seems completely credible, though this might have been in the partisan minds of pro-McKinley journalists. 

Given this assumed affinity between Bryan and the phonograph, it is not entirely surprising that in 1900 when Bryan had more time to prepare a campaign, the Democratic National Committee arranged to have the candidate and a number of high profile Democrats record master cylinders from which 250 duplicates were to be made. It was widely “expected that the Bryan Speech as ground out by the phonograph will play an important part in the campaign.” In fact, the master cylinders were apparently flawed and the duplicates unusable.  A series of lawsuits followed—which the Bryan campaign lost. High hopes came to naught.  

How important do you think these early experiments with mediated communication were to the candidates, their campaigns, and their outcomes? Were the uses of cinema, recorded sound, and these other technologies an interesting side show or did they help to shape the outcomes of these elections? 

That is a good question and of course there are no easy answers. Mediated communication modes—particularly if we include the newspapers—were crucial to the outcome of these elections. Cleveland’s narrow victory in 1884—thanks to New York’s many Democratic newspapers––proved that. He lost some of that support in 1888 and lost New York State. Certainly McKinley lopsided victory in 1896 was partially due to the fact that all the traditionally Democratic newspapers refused to support Bryan and in effect became pro-McKinley. The stereopticon was certainly a factor in 1888 with The Tariff Illustrated and quite possibly in 1900 with the many celebratory accounts of military victory securing an overseas empire. When going into a campaign, political operatives never know the precise layout of the upcoming battlefield and are looking for every possible advantage. Media was always an important part of the equation. On the other hand, Bill Clinton’s tagline that “It’s the economy, stupid” bears weight. Cleveland may have won the 1892 election because the country was beginning to enter a Depression. It was unlikely that any Democrat could have won the 1896 election given the previous four years of economic devastation. And the rebounding economy of 1900 certainly was crucial to McKinley’s fortunes.   

Media, and in the long 1890s particularly new media, shaped the gestalt or, to use Raymond Williams; term, “structures of feeling” of the campaigns. The Republican party’s use of motion pictures and the telephone–-along with the bicycle––gave them a pro-active aura of being up-to-date and if I can use these words––cool and hip. Bryan’s problems with the phonograph did the opposite, calling into question his competence and reinforcing his aura as something of a rube or country hick. This goes beyond immediate cause and effect and takes into account deeper and more subtle influences.  

One person who should not be lost in all of this is Theodore Roosevelt. I don’t think anyone had carefully researched and assessed the ways media played a crucial role in his rise to power, but Politicking and Emergent Media covers that ground in ways that readers should find interesting.

Your book doesn’t just deal with the campaigns, but also how the public learned the outcome of the elections. How Americans would have engaged with unfolding election results during the 1890s? 

Today we often gather around our TV sets—of computer screens--to watch election returns with friends and family.  In the second half of the 19th and first decades of the 20th century, crowds gather at newspaper headquarters to follow the returns since the papers were plugged into the telegraph system that reported the votes in almost real time. In big cities, this reporting of results became competitive. Who could get them first and who could display them in the most entertaining way. At first these returns were posted on bulletin boards. Increasingly they were projected on a screen using the stereopticon. While waiting for a new set of figures to arrive, cartoons, slogans or other miscellaneous materials were projected. Bands might provide music. In 1896 motion pictures were often screened between updates. It was undoubted the first time that many people got to see films for free. 

Across the book, you are also conducting a conversation about the disciplinary shift from Cinema Studies (where you situated your earlier work) and Media Studies, Dare I say Comparative Media Studies (where you situate this current project.) Yet, clearly, earlier writers of film history were interested in film’s relationship with painting, photography and various forms of popular theater. In what ways does the new focus on thinking across media break from that earlier tradition? What do you think your project gained from embracing those conceptual shifts? 

Thank you for that question. I think we have to remember that Film Studies emerged in the context of a great truism or cliché: “cinema is the art form of the 20th century.”  If that was the case, much needed to be done.  Filmmakers—major and minor—needed to be studied and assessed.  Film works needed to be restored and presented to the public. We needed to understand the history of this art form on a level of detail and sophistication which had not really begun to happen. In this context, I realized that beginnings are important and since little was really known in terms of the formative years of motion pictures, that this was in particular need of being studied. Also I quickly discovered that the questions and answers that came out of such investigations were not necessarily the ones that we would have expected. They made me really think about the very different ways cinema had been cinema over the course of its history. At the same time, this pre-Griffith period was a period before film was considered an art—either at the time or by our contemporaries. So in that respect the study of early cinema was already moving in a media studies direction.

The first fifteen years of my sustained, in-depth investigation into American early cinema (1976 to 1991) were focused on mapping out its history on multiple levels. In this, I obviously was not alone but part of a generation of scholars often associated with the 1978 Brighton Conference. We sought to understand the changing nature of film style as well as the dialectics between modes of production and representation. The American motion picture industry was shaped in many ways by a series of legal battles around patents and copyright. I was particularly interested in figuring out the rapid shifts in cinema practices. We certainly attended to the ways cinema interacted with and appropriated elements from various popular cultural forms in terms of subject matter but also in areas such as exhibition (vaudeville, illustrated lectures and more). We were interested in intertextuality and then increasingly in intermediality. Cinema, however, was always the starting point.  Obviously, I wrote about Biograph, McKinley and the way cinema had played an active role in American politics only a few months after commercially successful projected motion pictures appeared in the US.  However, because it was always in terms of a history of cinema, such investigations often stopped short.

When people talk about the death of cinema, it is not that cinema died but it ceased to be this dominant art form. With the fading of art cinema, some might argue that it even became a minor art form produced for a modest group of educated cognoscenti; but even if one wants to include major Hollywood blockbusters, its hegemony was broken. Television, video games, the Internet and social media: media studies was really a necessary engagement with a new and very different cultural realm. Although I came to Politicking and Emergent Media through my interest in early cinema, I wanted to decenter cinema and re-situate it in a much broader media landscape. At the same time, a much broader media landscape created problems of focus and shape. Concentrating on U.S. presidential political campaigns proved a clever and effective solution. It enabled me to ask a whole series of new and interesting questions. One of the fundamental questions I had to pursue: what was the relevant media formation for this undertaking. I realized that newspapers were a central component, which quickly put me somewhat at odds with the Amsterdam model of Thomas Elsaesser. It was also essential to include public oratory and pageantry, which did not depend on technologies of reproducibility which extends the range of media that Lisa Gitelman and others had been investigating. The result was a more open-ended investigation with many surprises. 

One modest example: I had been interested in the stereopticon but again as part of a history of screen practice as a way to understand cinema’s rapid emergence as a sophisticated cultural force after 1896. So, it required a conceptual adjustment to realize that the stereopticon was arguably a more pervasive and politically influential media form than cinema in 1899-1900, at least when it came to presenting narratives of US imperial conquest. Comparing the role of the phonograph to motion pictures was straight forward but the role of the telephone—and in a different way the bicycle—was completely unexpected. For me it produced a richer and more interesting story—a story that resonates with the contemporary moment but always in unexpected ways. There is no question that Republicans were the party of big business and US imperial expansion but they were also generally more progressive on environmental issues and women’s suffrage. What surprised and intrigued me the most in the course of this undertaking was that Republicans, particularly in the decisive 1896 election, presented themselves implicitly and explicitly as the party of technological innovation and hope, conveying an optimism about the future that would reaffirm Republican dominance in the political realm until the Great Depression.


Charles Musser is a Professor of Film and Media Studies, American Studies and Theater Studies at Yale University where he teaches courses on the history of film and media as well as documentary (both production and critical studies). He recently completed a new feature-length documentary Our Family Album (2018), an essay film on Love, War and the Power of Photography. Its literary counterpart, Our Family Album: Essay-Script-Annotations-images is being published by John Libbey and will be distributed by Indiana University Press in late 2019.

Emergent Media and Presidential Politics (in the 1890s): A Conversation with Charles Musser (Part I)

A Conversation with Charles Musser regarding his recent book Politicking and Emergent Media: U.S. Presidential Elections of the 1890s (University of California Press, 2016).


When we think about presidential candidates ho are innovative in their use of new and emergent media, we might think of the Howard Dean meet ups, we might think about the various ways that the Obama people tapped grassroots video makers, we might think about Donald Trump’s transformative use of Twitter, or now, we might think about the centrality of selfies in the Elizabeth Warren campaign. Each of those candidates (and their team, more likely) realized something about a rapidly changing media environment and deployed these tools to transform the interface between the candidates and their supporters. Each allowed us to feel more connected with the campaign or to feel like we had a more intimate knowledge of who the candidates were.

What we do not think about are William McKinley, Grover Cleveland or Teddy Roosevelt!

Charles Musser is one of the most important historians of the dramatic media changes which took place between the late 19th and early 20th century. His work on the Nickelodeon era has transformed our understanding of early cinema. He has across his career helped to expand our understanding of the media environment into which cinema entered American culture. And he has written knowingly about early African-American filmmakers and about documentary films. I only recently discovered that he had written a book, Politicking and Emergent Media: U.S. Presidential Elections of the 1890s (University of California Press, 2016). which discusses how a range of new media — from magic lanterns to phonograph records — played in shaping electoral politics in the late 19th century. I was struck by the parallels to our current new media moment and as we dig ever deeper into the 2020 presidential campaign, I wanted to insert some of his insights into the conversation.

Your introduction (and to some degree, your title) signal potential parallels between the use of “emergent media” in the 1890s and the role of “new media” in the past few election cycles. What parallels might you draw?  For example, you make an unlikely (yet convincing) comparison between William McKinley and Barack Obama in your coda. Explain what similarities you see between the two candidates and their use of media. 

Yes.  These kinds of comparison are fascinating and can provide us with useful perspectives. Not unlike Obama, McKinley and the Republicans embraced the newest forms of communication technologies.  Specifically, McKinley’s brother Abner, a Wall Street financier of what we would now call technology startups, was one of many Republicans to invest in the American Mutoscope & Biograph Company, which would become the dominant motion picture company—world-wide--in the 1890s. The Biograph’s official debut was basically sponsored by the Republican National Committee. McKinley’s campaign also knew how to use the telephone for campaign purposes in ways that were powerful even if hard to imagine without reading actual accounts in the newspapers. Barrack Obama, of course, was a cosmopolitan figure whose campaign knew how to tap the potential of YouTube and related media technologies.  It was part and parcel of a futurist vision that captured people’s imagination: in some sense it was a key reason why he seemingly deserved to be president. McKinley and Obama shared an optimistic vision of the future where technology could implicitly or explicitly be mobilized to solve serious problems. It was their opponents—William Jennings Bryan on one hand and John McCain or Mitt Romney on the other—who embodied more backwards-looking visions of America. When it came to campaigning, these losers were comparatively awkward users of new media. They also appealed to Evangelicals whose attitude towards modernity was and is fraught.  

For those conversant with new media, McKinley and Obama were both inspirational figures. The Obama campaign benefited from the innumerable videos that were made by professionals and semi-professionals who were essentially independent of his campaign.’s Yes We Can video was undoubtedly the most successful campaign song in the nation’s history. It came at a crucial moment in Obama’s campaign; and without it, he might never have won the Democratic nomination and become president. Likewise, Thomas Edison and his Vitascope associates (Raff & Gammon) were Biograph’s chief rival.  Nevertheless, they were pro-McKinley and made pro-McKinley films completely independent of Republican guidance. When the Edison company shot a short film of Bryan, Bryan was delighted, but the Vitascope Company’s ownership and control of the film enabled it to successfully sabotaged its distribution: they delayed the exhibition of Bryan Train Scene until after Biograph had shown McKinley at Home and then screened it in a variety program that surrounded Bryan’s image by short films such as Feeding the Chickens and Wash Day. As coincidence would have it, Norman Raff was from McKinley’s hometown of Canton, Ohio. One might even characterize the Vitascope Company’s treatment Bryan as a “dirty trick.”

Another way to look at this:  The Republican dominated Biograph company was a direct precursor of FOX News.

You were writing the book in the midst of the 2016 campaign with the consequence that you write about Obama but not about Trump. To what degree do Trump's rallies look back to 19th century oratorical traditions? 

Although the publication of Politicking and Emergent Media was unfortunately delayed, it still came out a month before the 2016 election. So its release was timed to offer some historical perspective on the Trump-Clinton contest. Clinton’s defeat by Obama in the 2008 Democratic primaries was not a good sign. She had so many advantages; but if you looked at her YouTube page, she and her campaign were obviously pretty clueless when it came to online media. It did not bode well. Of course, Trump seemed such a problematic figure that we thought she would sneak through. However, it turned out that Trump and his campaign were more media savvy than we recognized—both in ways that were familiar and––if we include the Russians’ mobilization of social media on his behalf––in ways that were highly unorthodox, illegal and certainly in the dirty tricks category. On election eve, I sat and watched a Trump campaign rally televised from Michigan: his performance seemed quite powerful in its appeal to disgruntled voters and I found it quite unnerving. I went to bed hoping the polls favoring Hillary were right.

Campaign rallies have been part of every campaign since the 1890s and well before then. These obviously staged events are designed to energize the faithful and perhaps convert a few of those who were undecided. Media, however, has provided the crucial echo chamber. In the 1890s, it was via the newspapers though three different motion picture companies filmed the final McKinley Parade in New York City, a few days before the election. Trump’s rallies had a raucous political incorrectness that produced extensive television coverage; they were also much commented on in the press. This produced a very successful feedback loop but one that was not as obviously hip as Obama’s. Trump seemed a little old fashion—tied to the older media of television in this way. As a reality TV star, he understood television and how it could work. As it turned out Trump also knew how to use social media. if Obama dominated YouTube, Trump proved a master of Twitter. And he knew how—or learned how––to make them all work together. It was during this campaign that news articles on the Internet began to quote political figures by reproducing and inserting a tweet. If one compared the Clinton campaign’s impersonal tweets to Trump’s twitter page, there is no doubt that his was far more dynamic and effective.

What makes election campaigns a particularly useful benchmark to check in on shifts within the media/ communication landscape?  

There are a number of factors. First, there is the regularity of our presidential elections. This allows for some reflection on the success and failure of the previous presidential campaign and how to correct or improve––and often innovate going forward. A second factor is the nature of the stakes. It’s a binary all or nothing. With the absence of a viable multi-party system, there are no runners-up. IN this context ‘winning is everything, it is the only thing’ and so it calls for maximum effort. A third is just the amount of money and other resources that are available. Perhaps crucially there has been a sense (often justified) that at least since the 1884 election when the “liberal media” (i.e. Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World) was responsible for Grover Cleveland’s victory—that media often makes the crucial difference. Tied to this are the crucial dynamics of a changing media landscape. Pulitzer bought the New York World in 1883 and became the kingmaker the following year. It is worth noting, however, that rematches in which the incumbent is running for a second term–– Cleveland vs Harrison, McKinley vs Bryan or Eisenhower vs. Stevenson and more recently Obama vs Romney—are usually fought on similar media landscapes in which only small adjustments occur. Perhaps one of the Democratic candidates in 2020 will surprise us but it looks like that is likely to be the case again. If so, that will be to Trump’s advantage.  

Can you sketch out a bit the media landscape which would have confronted the candidates for president in the 1890s? How was media change tied to other shifts in the American economy and technological infrastructure? 

The campaign season was an occasion for male sociality as male voters had their evenings momentarily freed from the constraints of domesticity. Elections involved a kind of participatory democracy—even if it might mean heated discussions at a nearby saloon or local Republican club. But there were numerous rallies, meetings and speeches—some literally on the local street corner. Most newspapers were relentless partisan. They featured the speeches and doings of their candidates. They praised them and argued the compelling logic of their programs—of which the debates around high versus low tariffs were paramount in 1888 and 1892, sound money versus free silver in 1896 and American imperialism in 1900. Many papers ran calendars announcing meetings, rallies and speeches by the presidential candidates’ numerous stand-ins. 

One crucial factor in the 1880s and 1890s—and well beyond—was that New York was the crucial swing state.  Whoever won New York State won the presidency. And in this respect the size of the Democratic victory in New York City was crucial to determining the outcome. What New York State Governor and Democrat Grover Cleveland’s victory made clear was that New York’s largest daily newspapers were overwhelming Democratic and seemed to hold the key to electoral triumph. These included the New York World, New York Sun, New York Times, New York Herald and New York Post. The New York Tribune was the only prominent Republican daily—along with a few minor papers like The Mail and Express. Newspapers and a few magazines were the only forms of mass communication in the 19th century and this configuration had suddenly ended 24 years of Republican rule.  

Republicans were furious and have hated the liberal media ever since. They also began a search for new media forms that could counter the Democrats dominance in this arena. In a way, this is what Politicking and Emergent Media is all about—the search for and efforts to exploit new media forms—the stereopticon, the telephone, the phonograph and projected motion pictures. In the process they began to transform the very nature of US electoral politics.  

One parallel that you did not make but which struck me in reading your account of the illustrated lecture: Al Gore’s use of powerpoint as a tool for his public lectures on climate change. What similarities or differences might have existed between these two formats for enhancing public oratory? 

Of course, PowerPoint presentations are the most obvious and direct descendants of the illustrated lecture. Not all 19th century lectures were illustrated. Great orators like William Jennings Bryan didn’t need them. Likewise, not all 21st century orators utilize PowerPoint. Trump would find them far too constraining.  In the 19th century some saw the use of lantern slides as a way to enhance their somewhat limited oratorical talents.  In truth, I identify with that sentiment! So if Gore is at his best when giving an illustrated presentation, perhaps it helps to explain why he did not become our president.   On a more practical level, the illustrated lecture of the 1890s held a prominence in the media landscape that PowerPoint presentations clearly lack in a much expanded media world.  What made Gore’s PowerPoint presentation a powerful weapon was the documentary and its multiple medias platforms.  

The history of environmental audio-visual programs is long if uneven. The illustrated lecture as a practice that utilized lantern slides––the stereopticon lecture if you will—really congealed in the 1870s around an astonishing large number of presentations on Yosemite and Yellowstone National Park. Thinking in terms of dispostifs, these environmental programs were a catalyst for the formation of modern documentary practices. An Inconvenient Truth (2006) not only embeds a PowerPoint lecture within its overall documentary format, it was a catalyst for the environmental documentary to become one of the most prominent documentary genres of the last 14 years--—perhaps the most prominent. Of course, An Inconvenient Truth was also serving a Democratic political agenda and helped Democrats regain control of the Senate. Such an implicit purpose complicated its impact by making the environment a partisan issue—specifically a Democratic issue.  In the 1870s efforts to establish a system of national parks was more bipartisan but also very much a Republican issue. 


Charles Musser is a Professor of Film and Media Studies, American Studies and Theater Studies at Yale University where he teaches courses on the history of film and media as well as documentary (both production and critical studies). He recently completed a new feature-length documentary Our Family Album (2018), an essay film on Love, War and the Power of Photography. Its literary counterpart, Our Family Album: Essay-Script-Annotations-images is being published by John Libbey and will be distributed by Indiana University Press in late 2019.

Collective Wisdom (Part IV): An Interview with the Open Documentary Lab's William Uricchio and Katerina Cizek


Near the end of the report, you explore the question of whether meaningful co-creation can take place with “non-human agents,” whether natural or digital. You stress here the question of equivalent agency, which has a strong ring given your discussion throughout on the ethical choices involved in the co-creative process. What might we learn about co-creation more generally by drilling into the concept of equivalent agency in discussing human-nonhuman collaborations? 

Co-creating with non-humans is the most speculative part of the report.  Notions like agency and the impulse to consider equivalency as a relevant factor are emphatically human, so it’s difficult to step out of a homo-centric frame.  But that said, as we learn more about other species and larger non-human systems, and the more developments in AI continue to cycle exponentially through their boom-and-bust trajectory, the question of how we will work with these entities is more pressing than ever.  So on the one hand, we can’t avoid grappling with this: it is simply in our face.  And on the other, as your question suggests, there’s also a heuristic value in engaging with these questions, speculative or not, much like world building.  They help to reveal something about our underlying assumptions and relations to the world, and they expose the foundations of the method we’ve been exploring. 

If we look at our culture’s default behaviors with nature, with other species, and with AI, we can see unmitigated evidence of the extractive behaviors that we’ve critiqued in other settings.  This begs the question of boundaries.  Are there domains that are free from ethical concerns? Or do we need to think about ethics in a relational manner, where they imbue our every engagement in the world?  In a study of co-creation, the answer is evident, and so we decided to take that relational stance and push it.  We sought out practitioners who thought about AI or biological organisms as more than mere tools, or who were at least open to questioning their relationship.  And we were particularly intrigued by those who interacted with and learned from these non-human systems, rather than simply ‘using ‘ them.   

You asked earlier why so many of our examples of best practices emerged from Indeginous makers, and this is a great example of why.  In the West, we have a simple hierarchy of being in which we humans are important, and everything else is … not.  Whether the question of how our philosophical systems treat non-human life, or how our biological and psychological systems understand animal consciousness, or how we in the aggregate treat the larger ecosystem of which we are a part, our cultural response is shockingly indifferent.  By contrast, those who dominant systems have spent centuries marginalizing and maligning for their otherness and beliefs in many cases have a far more nuanced and open relationship to non-humans.  In the report, we have a quote from Blackfoot philosopher Leroy Little Bear — via Jason Lewis, an Indigenous scholar and artist —  that captures this sentiment beautifully:

[T]he human brain is a station on the radio dial; parked in one spot, it is deaf to all the other stations … the animals, rocks, trees, simultaneously broadcasting across the whole spectrum of sentience) 

It’s a rich insight, and one that resonated with the artists we interviewed who work with cells, bees, or AI systems.  Yes, this is a speculative domain, and it takes significant effort to cast off centuries of assumptions about the nature of the world, of hierarchies of agency, and of our own status.  And the work that we explored and artists we interviewed more often than not interrogated the possibilities of equivalency, even if not necessarily accepting it as a given.  Agency is not uniform, and we are certainly not equating human agency with that of a slime mold.  But acknowledging the possibility of agency of whatever kind, and attempting to work with and learn from other entities (rather than simply using them) seems to be a fundamental part of redefining our relationship to the world.  So yes, we are open to and even share a healthy skepticism even as we share a willingness to explore and consider new relationships with non-human entities. 

 This is an extraordinarily provocative and important area.  As the global climate catastrophe continues to force increasingly difficult ethical choices upon us and and our delegated policy makers, entertaining notions of ‘equivalent agency’ and attempting to co-create with non-human actors takes on an urgent character.  These engagements offer ways to help us to think through our relationship with the world at a make-or-break moment.  Fast accelerating developments in machine learning, on the other hand, offer an equally pressing motivation to consider both the limits of human agency and the potentials and pitfalls of co-creation.  Carrot or stick, this domain offers ample incentive to learn from the creative process as we work with non-human entities.


Can you say a bit about how collaborative processes shaped the development of the report itself?  

This report went through many iterations, and grew and grew… into a study of over 250 pages, ‘authored’ by two people, co-authored by twelve people, based on conversations with 166 people, developed in group discussions with many more, and all subject to an extensive and iterative review process.  We are very aware of the hybrid form of the report’s authorship, on one hand hewing to academic and institutional requirements for attribution, responsibility, and ultimately transparency regarding the choices that a text like the report represents.  It is, ultimately, authored.  On the other hand, we wanted the report to reflect structurally as much of the ethos of co-creativity as possible.   We thought a lot about the process, and did our best to be inclusive, to listen deeply, to create space for autonomy, and to learn.  

We originally intended to produce a short, 50-70 page white paper, based on a few phone interviews with key people in the field. But we realized after our 60th interview that not only did we need many more voices, but that the report might best work as a documentary rather than synthesis. We moved towards a polyvocal approach, with many quotes, less “narration”, and diverse and sometimes even opposing perspectives on any given theme that we identified. We sought to be more democratic in the editorial process, as well. We asked some of our interviewees to develop their interviews into longer chapters. We also organized group conversations at five key events in Europe, Canada and the US, where we presented some of the key findings from our early research (such as the definition, the principles, some of the charts and frameworks). We integrated those ideas, critiques and quotes into the study. We held a symposium in September 2019 at MIT structured around the themes, and had twelve facilitators lead breakout sessions which were also integrated into the study. One main critique that emerged from the symposium was the centering of Artists of Color in the conversation about co-creation. In response, we asked five artists of color to hold a recorded conversation about the history and legacy of co-creation in communities of color. We also had an intense review process, including peer review, and we shared the draft with all interviewees for their comments/suggestions. Finally, the publication itself is a “work-in-progress” both as a series at IMMERSE, and on the new MIT Press PubPub platform, which invites readers for comments and feedback to nurture a living, breathing document.

What do you see as the next steps for your center? How do you plan to address some of the issues your report identifies? 

We identified six key recommendations in the study, all of which are also helping to guide the next steps for our Co-Creation Studio. We are spending the next few months focussing on outreach with the report, in many different settings, such as a celebration of co-creative works in VR at the Venice Film Festival, and in festivals such as Banff, IDFA in Amsterdam, Leipzig, and more. We have organized key strategic events to share the findings, we are in conversation with educators, institutions, foundations and organizations on how to get the word out, but we are also listening deeply to the responses to the report.  

Beyond outreach, we are also committed to the deployment of our findings in the report and to testing and sharing the results.  In this regard, we are thrilled to host a Mozilla Fellow for the first time ever at the Co-Creation Studio, starting this Fall.  And we have developed a number of workshops to enable us to work closely with various creators and questions, and to explore tangible deployments of co-creation in radically different settings. 

The needs identified in the report include creating a hub for co-creation tools, resources, and curriculum modules; working with institutions to support process over product in their funding and evaluation models; researching new business models for collective ownership such as co-operativism. Our biggest next step is the incubation of co-creative projects. In the coming year, we will redouble our efforts to host workshops, develop labs, and support various collections of work with partners, all the while hoping to research and share what we learn along the way.


Katerina Cizek is a two-time Emmy-winning documentarian working across emergent media platforms. She is the Artistic Director of the Co-Creation Studio at MIT’s Open Documentary Lab. Recently, she wrote (with William Uricchio and 12 co-authors) a ground-breaking field study on co-creative practices in the arts, journalism and documentary, entitled Collective Wisdom. As a documentarian for over a decade at the National Film Board of Canada, she helped redefine the organization as one of the world’s leading digital content hubs, with the Filmmaker-in-Residence and HIGHRISE projects. Both community-based and globally recognized, these two ground-breaking serial and digital projects garnered: a Peabody award, a World Press Photo Prize, 3 Canadian Screen Awards, amongst others. Cizek has forged unconventional, co-creative partnerships with such diverse organizations ranging from an inner-city teaching hospital to Mozilla Foundation, to The New York Times. Her projects are also interventionist, and co-creative: they have significantly contributed to conversations about health-care policy, urban planning as well as the health outcomes and living conditions of the participants themselves. Cizek’s earlier human rights documentary film projects have instigated criminal investigations, changed UN policies, and have screened as evidence at an International Criminal Tribunal. Cizek's films include the Hampton-Prize winner Seeing is Believing: Handicams, Human Rights and the News (2002, co-directed with Peter Wintonick), In Search of the African Queen: A People Smuggling Operation (1999, co-director), and The Dead are Alive: Eyewitness in Rwanda (1995 editor, co-writer, narrator). She is frequently invited to travel internationally to teach, advise and share innovative approaches to the documentary genre, emergent media and journalism.

William Uricchio revisits the histories of old media when they were new; explores interactive and participatory documentary; writes about the past and future of television; thinks a lot about algorithms and archives; and researches cultural identities and the question of "Americanization" in the 20th and 21st centuries. He is Professor of Comparative Media Studies, Principal Investigator of the MIT Open Documentary Lab, and faculty director of the MISTI-Netherlands Program. He is also Professor of Comparative Media History at Utrecht University in the Netherlands and has held visiting professorships at the Freie Universität Berlin, Stockholm University, the Georg-August-Universität Göttingen (Lichtenberg-Kolleg), China University of Science and Technology, and in Denmark where he was DREAM professor. He has been awarded Guggenheim, Humboldt and Fulbright fellowships and the Berlin Prize; and was Holtzbrinck Fellow at the American Academy in Berlin. His publications include Reframing Culture; We Europeans? Media, Representations, Identities; Media Cultures; Many More Lives of the Batman; and hundreds of essays and book chapters, including a visual "white paper" on the documentary impulse ( He is currently completing a book on the deep history and possible futures of documentary; and another on games and playing with history and historiography after post-structuralism.

Collective Wisdom (Part III): An Interview with the Open Documentary Lab's William Uricchio and Katerina Cizek


You write, “To present co-creation within media as a re-emergent practice without explicitly acknowledging the long-standing co-creative approaches practiced by communities of color, doesn’t simply erase their work, it undermines the very tenets of co-creation.” Explain.

At its core, the idea of co-creation seeks to reconcile systemic power and singular authority. This fundamental principle extends beyond the creative process within media making, compelling all of us to interrogate fundamental ideas of ownership, meaning-making, attribution and—if we optimize the potential of co-creation—realize a more just society.  Context matters, and as we said earlier, we need to be mindful that in co-creating we are part of a long standing human tradition.  However, particularly in the West, co-creation has been occluded by an extractive economic order.  This is embedded in euro-centric legal language and metaphors: consider ‘intellectual property’ in which revenues accrue to the owner, but not necessarily the maker, in the form of ‘royalties’. That extractive economic order was at its most rawest and visible in the experiences of enslaved people, whose lives, labor, and creativity were someone’s property.   

Throughout this, co-creation has thrived at the margins.  But precisely because of this position, dominant cultures have tended to ignore the history of co-creation especially within communities of color.  There are so many unacknowledged keepers of the flame. 

With this larger imperative in mind, we developed a chapter of the report that seeks to provide an introduction of the long-standing co-creative practices within communities of color. The function of this chapter is to begin mapping the history of co-creation within communities of color in the U.S., to explore non-institutional power, innovation, and co-operation amongst media makers of color, and to unpack the un-calculated costs and labor of deep co-creation processes. 

Thomas Allen Harris, filmmaker, and co-author of the chapter states: “This benign neglect, often due to the work’s resistance to certain stereotypical narratives, resulted in its marginalization so that today some can speak about co-creation as something new, without feeling the responsibility to find and cite precedence within media makers of color that have long been ignored by the mainstream. The result is a kind of a painful double negation. So as we revisit or re-package the concept of co-creation, it’s important for us to interrogate our power relationships and our motivations vis-à-vis process, community as well as outcomes.” 

I was struck by how many of the examples illustrating your best practices come from indigeneous media makers around the world. Are some cultures more accepting and accommodating of co-creation than others? What does this suggest about larger social shifts which might be needed for the full potentials of co-creation to emerge in industrialized western cultures? 

We argue that western, eurocentric, and extractive media-making practices have dominated the scholarship, the institutions, and the models of the way we understand media-making.  Identifiable authorship and intellectual property ownership have been joined at the hip since the advent of capitalism and the industrialization of culture.  These notions are not only embedded as norms, but they are systematically enforced through things like education, the promotion and tenure process at universities, the pathway to careers in the arts, and of course the legal system.  Paradoxically, the very conditions that have marginalized Indigenous peoples in this system have also to some extent exempted them from this trap.  

The global Indigenous Renaissance (expressed in film, arts, literature and scholarship) is a guiding inspiration to funding alternative structures and models to singular authorship. It has a rich tradition of co-creation to fall back on, and that legacy is now being recognized and finding support.  In Canada, where I am based, a recent (2015) Truth and Reconciliation Commission into the century-long Indigenous Residential School system has recommended a reframing of the relationships between Indigenous communities and government as “nation to nation.” The 94 recommendations and models to de-colonize institutions, epistemologies, and methods of creating provide important models for fulfilling the potential of co-creation. 

So yes, some cultures -- especially those most marginalized within the current order of things -- offer uninterrupted legacies of  alternatives such as co-creation.  As noted earlier, co-creation has even served as a survival and resistance strategy for many communities.  And our field study makes amply clear that it can provide a robust alternative to exploitative and extractive behaviors, offering the rest of us a survival strategy as well. 

You are right to point to the need for larger social shifts in the Western industrialized world if the real power of co-creation is to be unlocked.  Casting a glance across the planet at the start of the third decade of the 21st Century, amidst the climate crisis, with tensions between globalization and nationalism, between governance and sovereignty, between fascistic authority and radical self determination, and the myriad contestations of identity, suggests that dramatic social shifts are already underway.  It’s a frightening moment, because those shifts are earthquake-like in their power and capable of destroying much of the civilizational infrastructure that sits atop deep fault-lines.  But it’s also an opportune moment if we are alert enough to mitigate disaster, to rethink the way -- to extend the metaphor -- that we build, and distribute resources, and live.  So the changes that are disrupting some of our industries, that have led to anxieties and intolerance in our populations, and indeed, that have degraded the very ecosystem that we all inhabit may well expose the frailties and limits of the Western industrialized world sooner than we think.  The critique of late capitalism is a familiar one.  We hope that the tremors snap us out of the same old extractive and exploitative behaviors, and incentivize us to be more thoughtful about our interdependencies with the greater world.  In this sense, we see co-creation as a methodology that offers hope and meaningful ways to build trust and a common future.


Over the 20th century, the art world has been organized around individual, “personal” expression and community-based projects often get treated as “crafts” rather than “art.” What work needs to take place as collaborative artists seek more recognition for their collective accomplishments? 

Work needs to take place at several levels. We spoke earlier about the debate over process and product, and said that the nature of the process bears heavily on the product, especially now that tools and access are within reach of more people than ever before.  And we noted the growing insistence, especially within community media groups, to make sure that the work gets out.  There are a couple of strategies that might be deployed in tandem.   

We might consider ways of tapping the status quo evident in existing hierarchies of taste, in the traditional mechanisms that give it form (galleries, cinemas, museums, festivals, etc) and offer long-accepted ways to have work valorized.  So let’s press for more inclusivity, but with a twist. 

Hank Willis Thomas suggested in our interview that we need to build a canon for co-creative work. We need to recognize that co-creation can produce high quality art, film, media and journalism. We need to acknowledge and recognize this work, this canon. Then we need to support the funding and evaluating process rather than concentrating merely on product. We need to create pathways for funding development, and relationship building.  If you consider the work of organizations like the Ford Foundation, such work is already afoot.  And Ford’s president, Darren Walker, has been quite explicit about using the ample residues of 20th Century industry to support these new -- and one might even say, post-industrial -- criteria, pathways, and opportunities.  Another encouraging sign in this regard is the growth of art museums that specialize in non-attributed and non-canonical forms, whether ‘outsider’ or Indigenous; and encouraging as well is the growth in existing museums of collections of the same.   

Another strategy involves re-envisioning our place in the world.  We mentioned earlier that history sometimes seems more concerned with retrofitting the present onto the past, than exploring the past for new insights about the present.  Until recently, much the same thing could be said about a discipline like anthropology: it often seemed more concerned with investigating the Other as a way of confirming our own position, than as an opportunity to challenge our assumptions about ourselves.  Fortunately, change has been afoot here as well, and with it, much greater openness to learn from the experiences and lives of those long relegated to the margins.  With this recentering will necessarily come a reappraisal of the norms (like single authorship) that we too often take for granted.  In museums around the world, paintings that were once asserted as acts of individual genius (Rembrandt, Reubens, Caravaggio, take your pick) have slowly become ‘complicated’ by the fact that the master’s hand may only have painted a face or two, while his minions did the rest.  This acknowledgement is important, and although still contained by the old aesthetic regime, it is moving in a direction increasingly compatible with collective work. 

Institutions, schools, foundations, organizations, broadcasters, media production companies, and non-profits all need to invest in development and understand that it pays off in the quality not just of the art, but the larger social implications. We need to give people a chance to become better co-creators, by sharing skills and resources on how to listen, collaborate, and move away from ego-driven methods to collective ones. 

As you note, co-creation can and has been “misused for profit and power.” How can people identify which relationships are exploitative before they decide whether or not to participate? 

We inhabit a moment when some of our fastest-growing media organizations rely on user-generated content (think YouTube or FaceBook).  Like massively multi-player games or social media, without ‘us’ -- our content and our data -- there would be no business.  So it’s not surprising that these organizations and platforms like them invest considerable energy into making their users feel like part of the community.  Yet for all of the emphasis on the social, on collaboration, and even, increasingly, terms like co-creation, the user base is ultimately harvested and rendered into a source of profit for stockholders.  These developments have been muddying the waters, making it difficult to discern exactly what these terms entail. 

So yours is a great question, and fortunately there is a pretty simple answer.  When we see a project that identifies itself as “co-creation”, it’s important to examine who has governance of the project and who benefits from the project. What are the terms of agreement? If these issues are not clear, not transparent, then we need to interrogate and ask deeper questions about why they’re not transparent. The keys to co-creation are the relationships, and the overt discussion, articulation, and identification of  power, ownership, finances, decision-making and creative control in a project. If those discussions are absent, or not available, then it’s probably not co-creation.

You drew some interesting parallels between world-building as a process in science fiction and in documentary. My readers will likely be much more familiar with world-building in science fiction. What are some of the ways that world-building is influencing documentary production?  

As the old certainties of what’s real and what’s not (or in the jargon du jour, what’s ‘fake’) fade into a dim memory, people in the ‘reality business’ have been a lot more attentive to crafting and articulating their vision of the world, not just assuming that it will be accepted.  Journalists and documentary makers have been using a battery of tactics to demarcate their space, including world-building strategies borrowed from fiction.  In fact, historians (also chroniclers of the real) have routinely reveled in world-building, and their endeavors show how crucial such scenography is to the particular historiographic spin that they put on the past. World-building enables their project, supports it, renders it obvious.  So, too, with documentarians.  The days of building an argument on the basis of an assumed understanding of the world are fast fading.  And particularly at a moment of hyper mediatization, creating a fabric of cross references to other media representations and working with the narrative conventions of the moment are essential ways to construct a frame of reference that audiences can comprehend and navigate.   

World-building is relevant in a different way for documentarians working in the immersive space, where entire environments or “worlds” are literally created, whether in the form of VR, games, AR, mixed reality, theatre or other spatial experiences.   And we are slowly figuring out how argument, narrative, and representation operate in these worlds.  In a VR experience, where the user is free to look pretty much anywhere and explore the depicted world, should we fall back on storytelling techniques derived from film, that is, a directed vision? Or are we better off encouraging the user to explore, find the dots, and connect them in their own way, much as they would in the real world?  The answer has important implications for what, precisely, gets communicated.  And this emergent situation resonates with some of the issues we have addressed with co-creation.  Should master storytellers ‘tell’ and audiences ‘listen’? Or should world-builders working in these media collaborate with world-explorers to ‘enable’ various possibilities, paths, and experiences?  

Worlds are colliding, so to speak, as genres intertwine in these new contexts, as they are enabled by new modes of production, and as they are targeted to audiences / collaborators with new frames of reference.


Katerina Cizek is a Canadian documentary director and a pioneer in digital documentaries. From 2008-2015,Cizek directed the National Film Board of Canada's Highrise series on life in residential skyscrapers, including the 2010 world's first 360 degree web documentary Out My Window, winner of the inaugural IDFA DocLab Award for Digital Storytelling at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam and an International Digital Emmy for best digital program: non-fiction, and the 2011 webdoc One Millionth Tower, which lets users explore a highrise complex in 3D virtual space, as Toronto residents re-imagine their neighborhood. Cizek collaborated with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's OpenDocLab unit to develop the final production in the Highrise project called Universe Within. As part of MIT’s Visiting Artists Program, she worked with scholars and apartment residents to ask how new technological forms are reshaping personal lives in suburban high-rise communities. She is currently heading up a new research and production initiative at MIT Open Documentary Lab.

William Uricchio revisits the histories of old media when they were new; explores interactive and participatory documentary; writes about the past and future of television; thinks a lot about algorithms and archives; and researches cultural identities and the question of "Americanization" in the 20th and 21st centuries. He is Professor of Comparative Media Studies, Principal Investigator of the MIT Open Documentary Lab, and faculty director of the MISTI-Netherlands Program. He is also Professor of Comparative Media History at Utrecht University in the Netherlands and has held visiting professorships at the Freie Universität Berlin, Stockholm University, the Georg-August-Universität Göttingen (Lichtenberg-Kolleg), China University of Science and Technology, and in Denmark where he was DREAM professor. He has been awarded Guggenheim, Humboldt and Fulbright fellowships and the Berlin Prize; and was Holtzbrinck Fellow at the American Academy in Berlin. His publications include Reframing Culture; We Europeans? Media, Representations, Identities; Media Cultures; Many More Lives of the Batman; and hundreds of essays and book chapters, including a visual "white paper" on the documentary impulse ( He is currently completing a book on the deep history and possible futures of documentary; and another on games and playing with history and historiography after post-structuralism.

Collective Wisdom (Part II) An Interview with the Open Documentary Lab's William Uricchio & Katerina Cizek


What do you see as the core ethical commitments that need to shape co-creative media-making? What happens to co-creation when those ethical commitments are not in place

The people that we heard from in the field offered numerous lessons to help ensure that ethical commitments shape creative work and working relationships. They range from deep listening and dialogue, to building specific contracts such as “Community Benefit Agreements,” to focussing on project sustainability, to healing from trauma at individual and community levels rather than just focussing on media as an end-product, to plain old transparency.  In the report, we’ve distilled them down to ten lessons. 

While co-creation has a proven track record of negotiating and helping to suture divides, and while the results generally emerge as greater than the sum of their parts, it’s also important to note that co-creation can also be abused, and certainly, as you pose it, when its ethical commitments are not in place. Participants in the study warned that co-creation could:

●     Threaten editorial integrity and artistic independence.

●     Heighten expectations of trust, commitment, and time on all sides.

●     Marginalize makers and their work by categorizing them into the sub-genre of community media, especially artists of color.

●     Have unintended consequences, especially online and with AI.

●     Exploit labor, steal ideas and profit from them.

●     Be co-opted for the marketing of projects that reproduce power inequities.

These are not insignificant dangers.   Tools, alas, can be used properly or improperly; they can do good or ill; and while the collective nature of co-creation gives it a strong inclination to serve many needs rather than the desires of a few, we nevertheless need to stay alert to the possibilities of exploitation and abuse.

From the start, you make the case that co-creation is not a new idea, that it dates back to pre-historical petroglyphs, so what factors give a discussion of co-creation a new urgency today? What makes this a “new” or “emergent” (or at some points, re-emergent) space, as you also suggest many times here? 

To the extent that Google’s ngram viewer offers an insight into trends, the term ‘co-creation’ has grown exponentially over the past twenty or so years. There’s more than enough hype to go around, but, indeed, the practice is not new. Throughout history, we have evidence of co-creation as the norm.  As we noted earlier, it was the cultural operating system behind the development of our languages, religions, music, stories and more. But like undergrowth in a forest, it was overshadowed by the trees of single-authorship, which prospered in the West during the Enlightenment and emerged as a privileged form with the institutionalization of intellectual property.  Eager to envelop single authorship in precedent, its proponents retrofitted the model onto the co-creative work of the past, casting about for attribution and searching for individuals to credit and in the process overwriting alternative modes of creation.  History sometimes seems more concerned with retrofitting the present onto the past, than exploring the past for new insights about the present.   Nevertheless, co-creation practices, even if described by industrial era cultural arbiters as ‘folkish’ or ‘amateuristic’ or ‘craft’, have continued to offer alternatives to projects sparked by single-authored visions.  One of our goals in this report was to discover and learn from this long-marginalized cultural work. 

Today, we face the perfect storm of a pervasively mediated culture, a new generation of networked technologies, deep fissures in the social order, and an increasingly urgent search for alternatives.  Re-enter co-creation.  Co-creation has been newly enabled by the very same technologies and behaviors that intellectual property holders lament as eroding their business models.  Long present in marginalized communities where it offered a means of survival, it is moving into the mainstream where today it offers the hope that we can work together, build trust, and minimize exploitation.  OK - we have seen some of that potential deflected into the pseudo-social media as a new business model. But conditions are also ripe for more equitable co-creative practices. 

Co-creation is increasingly recognized in such areas as education, healthcare, technology and urban design. And although each of these and other fields have distinct approaches, fundamentally co-creation is an alternative to—and often a contestation of— a singular voice, authority, and/or process. Further, within digital infrastructures, the lines between audiences, subjects, and makers are blurred, and often erased. 

So the new-found relevance of co-creation might be argued technologically, through the pervasive spread of networked media; it might be framed economically and politically, with the weakening of legacy center-to-periphery models and the rise of distributed alternatives; and it might be positioned socially, with the weakening of traditional centers of cultural authority, the amplification of long-suppressed identities and epistemologies, and the ensuing tensions in the social fabric.  There is plenty of evidence in the form of today’s platform industries to suggest that those with an interest in power have found ways to harvest our collective impulses on both technological and political-economic fronts, using them for profits and control.  We need to critique that, and embrace more robust, equitable, and relevant alternatives such as co-creativity.  But our study also revealed significant progress and promise on the social front, as an enabler of trust through creative collaboration, but also as a resource and site of strength particularly for marginalized communities. 

What are the strengths of a co-creative approach for dealing with “the complex problems we face in the 21st century”, such as climate change? 

Well, one thing is for sure: the complex problems we face in the 21st century are too big for the narrow perspective of our top-down, discipline-bound, and often mutually-exclusive legacy systems! Overwhelmingly, co-creative veterans name the climate crisis as a top priority, to be tackled from the ground up. Complex problems need large teams, diverse and wide-ranging perspectives; and solutions are often found in the communities that are impacted most by the problems. Julia Kumari Drapkin of ISeeChange connects dots of data with stories, from the ground up to the sky, using NASA’s satellite images.

She states:

“Climate change is so large and big and coming at us from such large amounts of time and space. We need to be drilling down into the specifics of how a community is experiencing it and what's causing it. It's that tangible community context that allows solutions to happen, that allows the journalism to happen.” 

“The world is so complex now,” said Patricia Zimmermann, adding:

It's so interconnected, the problems of the Anthropocene and global climate disruption, the problems of poverty, the problems of racism, immigration, the problems of nuclear disaster, the problems of underfunding health care around the world, the problems of clean water. The majority of the world does not have clean water. One person cannot make a film about any of that, it's impossible. It's too complicated to do alone. When I look at these individualistic models, I don't see a lot of energy in these projects at all. They feel formulaic to me. 

“Will it really matter what we create, whether it's a project or an initiative, if we don't have clean air to breathe?” asked Opeyemi Olukemi, further stating:

If we don't have water to drink? If we have a series of superbugs that start to kill off entire populations? Not just to create, but to be responsible and have people realize that we are entering new territory and that this is a possible way to help address and stem the damage of what is coming down the pipeline. 

The anthropologist Anna Tsing has developed the concept of collaborative survival. Co-creation can likewise provide a set of methods and techniques to pursue that hope, and to distribute resources and governance more widely.  Precisely through its embrace of multiplicity, its attention to the experiences of people, and its concern all of us rather than special interests, co-creation offers broad-spectrum approaches to complex problems.  

You seem to suggest that with co-creation, the process may be more important than the outcome. In what sense? 

This is a big debate amongst those we interviewed, and our discussions have evolved over time.  Process, of course, can be transformative.  It’s where the dynamics of collaboration and co-creation play out.  It’s the space where people reveal themselves, where relationships can be built, where learning and skills are exchanged, and where trust can grow.  Process is the enactment of the social, the generator of the legitimacy that we spoke of earlier.  And we’ve placed great emphasis on process in the report because, just as we are trying to recover co-creation from the taken-for-grantedness of the single author, so too ‘process’, which we are trying to recover from a culture preoccupied with ‘product’.  And just as this by no means entails a rejection of single authorship and attribution (it’s the dominant, we’re just trying to give some attention to an urgently needed alternative), so too product.   Outcomes obviously matter as well, and not just in the sense of the “product” of the media, but also the “product” of its impact.  Indeed, it’s fair to say that many media makers are frustrated with the weight placed on deliverables over outcomes in conventional funding and evaluative models. Co-creators suggest that when we place more emphasis on process, on the dynamics of conception through execution through impact, we end up making better, more relevant and thoughtful work.  

In the 20th century, some co-creative projects, such as the National Film Board of Canada’s Challenge for Change program, insisted on the primacy of process over product.  An organization famed for its high-quality products, the NFB could occasionally afford to be indulgent about process, and be celebrated for it.  But for many other groups, especially community media organizations, the situation was historically different.  For decades, community-based media work was associated with low-quality aesthetics and unrefined narrative structures.  Makers were confronted with difficult issues of access to expensive equipment, processing, training, and more.  And while the experiences of media-making and the process of working across a community were often transformative, the outcomes tended to stay at a very local level.  In some cases, community media ‘products’ even conjured up derogatory associations.  

That sentiment seems to have changed, and thus the ‘big debate’ that we mentioned.  Now that media tools are more accessible, and high-quality visuals and narratives are more ubiquitous, and now that alternate distribution networks have enabled near-global reach, co-creators have become far more insistent about creating attractive and engrossing products.  They want to be heard and make a difference beyond their communities, in addition to enjoying the transformational benefits of process.  As paige watkins of DNA commented during a group discussion:

If you want the product to actually have impact past the choir, past the people who already understand what we're talking about and are agreeing with our values […] it has to be competitive up against the harmful things that are getting maybe more money or more resources. 

“Projects emerge from the process,” is how Heather Croall, director of the Adelaide Fringe Festival, summed up co-creation in the 21st century. For most co-creative teams, it’s not one or the other.  Product and process are complementary.


Katerina Cizek is a two-time Emmy-winning documentarian working across emergent media platforms. She is the Artistic Director of the Co-Creation Studio at MIT’s Open Documentary Lab. Recently, she wrote (with William Uricchio and 12 co-authors) a ground-breaking field study on co-creative practices in the arts, journalism and documentary, entitled Collective Wisdom. As a documentarian for over a decade at the National Film Board of Canada, she helped redefine the organization as one of the world’s leading digital content hubs, with the Filmmaker-in-Residence and HIGHRISE projects. Both community-based and globally recognized, these two ground-breaking serial and digital projects garnered: a Peabody award, a World Press Photo Prize, 3 Canadian Screen Awards, amongst others. Cizek has forged unconventional, co-creative partnerships with such diverse organizations ranging from an inner-city teaching hospital to Mozilla Foundation, to The New York Times. Her projects are also interventionist, and co-creative: they have significantly contributed to conversations about health-care policy, urban planning as well as the health outcomes and living conditions of the participants themselves. Cizek’s earlier human rights documentary film projects have instigated criminal investigations, changed UN policies, and have screened as evidence at an International Criminal Tribunal. Cizek's films include the Hampton-Prize winner Seeing is Believing: Handicams, Human Rights and the News (2002, co-directed with Peter Wintonick), In Search of the African Queen: A People Smuggling Operation (1999, co-director), and The Dead are Alive: Eyewitness in Rwanda (1995 editor, co-writer, narrator). She is frequently invited to travel internationally to teach, advise and share innovative approaches to the documentary genre, emergent media and journalism.

William Uricchio revisits the histories of old media when they were new; explores interactive and participatory documentary; writes about the past and future of television; thinks a lot about algorithms and archives; and researches cultural identities and the question of "Americanization" in the 20th and 21st centuries. He is Professor of Comparative Media Studies, Principal Investigator of the MIT Open Documentary Lab, and faculty director of the MISTI-Netherlands Program. He is also Professor of Comparative Media History at Utrecht University in the Netherlands and has held visiting professorships at the Freie Universität Berlin, Stockholm University, the Georg-August-Universität Göttingen (Lichtenberg-Kolleg), China University of Science and Technology, and in Denmark where he was DREAM professor. He has been awarded Guggenheim, Humboldt and Fulbright fellowships and the Berlin Prize; and was Holtzbrinck Fellow at the American Academy in Berlin. His publications include Reframing Culture; We Europeans? Media, Representations, Identities; Media Cultures; Many More Lives of the Batman; and hundreds of essays and book chapters, including a visual "white paper" on the documentary impulse ( He is currently completing a book on the deep history and possible futures of documentary; and another on games and playing with history and historiography after post-structuralism.

Collective Wisdom (Part 1): An Interview with the Open Documentary Lab's William Uricchio and Katerina Cizek

Several years ago, I conducted an interview here with William Uricchio, my old MIT colleague, who now oversees the Open Documentary Lab at MIT. The wide-ranging interview was selected for inclusion in my newly released book, Participatory Culture: Interviews, which includes samples from more than 15 years of discussions here about participatory culture, learning, and politics.

When I spoke with William and his colleagues this spring at the Media in Transition conference, they referenced a new white paper, Collective Wisdom: Co-Creating With Communities Across Disciplines and With Algorithms, which the Lab’s website describes as “a first-of-its-kind field study of the media industry that highlights trends, opportunities, and challenges to help advance the understanding and recognition of co-created works and practices—efforts that function outside the limits of singular authorship." We decided we would showcase the launch of this important study with an extended interview on this blog featuring Uricchio and his co-author, the documentary filmmaker Katerina Cizek (Highrise). For those who want to know more about the project, the Open Docs lab shared with me this trailer about their efforts.

The report is being published online via the MIT Press’s new Works in Progress series. They spoke to a massive number of experts — scholars and practitioners who shared with them core insights and best practices that are sure to generation further discussions and inspire future projects.


What do you mean by co-creation and what are some of the forms it is taking at the current moment?

 Co-creation is a complex concept, and we worked hard to pin it down to a precise formulation.  For a documentary maker, it can mean something as simple -- or profound -- as making documentaries with people, rather than for them or about them.  Our report is actually a field study, and in order to move beyond our own experiences, we interviewed some 166 people, discussed our findings with more, and convened in small groups and large.  The more we explored other uses of the concept, the more we discovered. This led us to develop a sharper formulation, which we’ll quote from the report: “Co-creation offers alternatives to a single-author vision, and involves a constellation of media production methods, frameworks, and feedback systems. In co-creation, projects emerge from a process, and evolve from within communities and with people, rather than for or about them. Co-creation spans across and beyond disciplines and organizations, and can also involve non-human or beyond human systems. The concept of co-creation reframes the ethics of who creates, how, and why. Our research shows that co-creation interprets the world, and seeks to change it, through a lens of equity and justice.” 

 As we designed our field study on co-creation particularly with regard to media-making, four main types emerged: within both real-world and online communities, across disciplines, and with humans working with non-human systems. These types of co-creation each have distinct qualities and concerns.


Co-creation within communities is the most commonly identified protocol in the study. While we have separated in-person and online co-creation in order to highlight unique conditions and challenges, most contemporary community projects intertwine both practices. To get a good sense of the report’s scope, it’s worth unpacking each of the categories that we investigated along with the major issues that we considered. 

With face-to-face community based co-creation, central discussions in our interviews revolved around power dynamics and relationships, i.e., who decides the terms of engagement, what media is made and by whom, and why, and who benefits from this type of project. Key concerns included the hidden, unfunded work of co-creation. Artists of color and other historically marginalized groups are often burdened with additional responsibilities not recognized in formal media-making. 

With on-line community co-creation, the blurred boundaries among makers, subjects, and audiences afford new opportunities, but also open up new risks vis-à-vis questions of ownership, governance, and authority. Distinct questions regarding issues of accountability and trust arose with journalism in particular. Additionally, in projects involving emergent media, co-creators often prioritized training, literacy, and community access to expensive and complex technologies, which are considered crucial for inclusion and equity. 

With cross-disciplinary co-creation, teams cross disciplinary lines, institutions, and organizations; and scholars and makers embark on parallel paths of discovery rather than privileging one discipline’s priorities over the other. This often requires comparatively long timelines and shared spaces. Importantly, these projects are frequently partnered with communities outside the academy. Many people interviewed in our report consider that co-creation resides beyond inter-disciplinary space, and prefer the terms trans-disciplinary, or even anti-disciplinary to describe their practices. 

Finally, in a more speculative mode, we interviewed artists, scientists, and provocateurs who are examining the possibilities of co-creation with non-human living systems, artificial intelligence (AI) as well as technological infrastructures. These processes too, de-centralize single authorship, and force us to consider questions about the definition of agency and singularity that ask what co-creating with non-human systems looks like as humans increasingly become entangled within larger systems and infrastructures.

How does the concept of Collective Wisdom relate to other concepts such as collective intelligence and “wisdom of crowds”?

 We share a site of inspiration!  Pierre Levy -- so important to your work in Convergence Culture -- coined the term ‘collective intelligence’ to refer to the shared, group intelligence emerging from the collaboration, collective efforts, and sometimes competition of many individuals, often appearing in consensual decision making. The concept has been applied to bacteria and animals, especially hived insects. Recently, it has been used to characterize crowdsourcing and the potential of computer systems, as explored by MIT’s Center for Collective Intelligence. In our study, we are interested in collective intelligence because it provides us with a system of tools and an established body of thinking. But we’ve chosen to frontload the phrase ‘collective wisdom’ because it goes further, evoking spiritual and philosophical dimensions of course, as well as the very practical questions of how to co-create? why? and why now? 

At its core, the idea of co-creation seeks to reconcile systemic power and singular authority. OK -- it’s pretty far reaching.  This fundamental principle extends beyond media making and compels us to interrogate ideas of ownership, meaning-making, attribution and—if we optimize the potential of co-creation—to do something more: to realize a more just society. And that’s where collectivity and wisdom enter the picture. 

For us, media co-creation is defined by methodologies that offer alternatives to the singular-authored vision, and that seek collaborative routes to discovery.  ‘Collaborative’ and ‘collective’ imply a shared vision and implementation process, rather than simply ceding to the views of the most empowered person in the room.  And for that reason, co-creation offers greater odds of achieving a balanced vision, and even justice.  Our study focuses on things like process, rather than simply privileging product; on changing the world, not simply observing it; and on decolonizing the all-too-familiar top down systems of production.  This shift from ‘business as usual’ emerges directly from the collectivity at the heart of co-creation; and work in this vein is already evidence of the method’s ability to change the world, not just interpret it.   Many of our interviews and case studies on the topic of co-creation revealed the elegance of collective wisdom, that is, a shared and decentralized understanding that, when intentionally channeled, can lead to transformative shifts in people, and with them, culture.#

You suggest many times here a need to “shed old legacy models that have become irrelevant.” Which “legacy models” should we “shed” and in what senses have they lost their relevancy and legitimacy? 

We heard over and over again in our interviews that many of the existing systems for media education, media development, funding, production and distribution are outdated. We heard that these programs reflect the way that media was created or believed to be created in the 20th century, when siloed, center-to-periphery media industries predominated.  People specifically noted the persistence of these models at film schools, journalism programs, museums, technology and science streams at universities, media institutions such as broadcasters, and funding and distribution agencies.  The loss in relevance of this model, and the organizations that continue to hold fast to it, is not news.  Ironically, it is evident even to the industry, as traditional notions of and business models for journalism erode, as new technologies and use patterns pressure ‘content industries’, and as those industries that have figured out how to scratch the itch of collaboration (albeit in a self-serving manner) rise to prominence.  The loss of relevance seems widely acknowledged, even if it is not always acted upon.  But the loss of legitimacy is another story.  Legitimacy serves as the last refuge of imperiled legacy systems, their raison d’etre even when the bottom begins to fall out.  And fortunately for them, the emerging order has yet to sort out its ethical priorities and frames of reference, so the legitimacy of legacy still hangs in the room.   

As legacy media organizations try to figure out what to do in an ecosystem dominated by upstarts like Alphabet and FaceBook, they’re simultaneously scrambling to make sense of, contain, and make use of networked digital culture. The problem is that they attend a little too much to the siren call of SEO, ROI, and whatever’s cooking on the algorithmic front, and underestimate the social dynamics of the changes we are experiencing.  And the social is ultimately the source of legitimacy.   

So at this juncture, legacy organizations are doing their best to grapple with changing conditions, but neither they (who direct their content to the social world) nor the digital upstarts (who make their profits by harvesting the social world) have empowered people (who constitute the social world!).  And that’s where we see the added value of co-creation: its power emerges from its social character, and its fundamental sociality highlights the current crisis in legitimacy.  We’ve argued that co-creation has a long history. It’s intrinsic to the development of our languages, belief systems, and great narratives.  Its current resurgence owes much to the affordances of digital networks as well as the disruption of the status quo.  But at heart, it remains profoundly social.  And its legitimacy ensues from the social dynamics of creativity, from the methods by which vision and power are structured.   

In the report, we’ve taken care to state that our embrace of co-creation does not constitute an attack on authorship (although some of those we interviewed do), or in the context of this question, legacy organizations and their legitimacy.  They occupy an important place in our social encounters with the world, and have values such as attribution that are increasingly important as noise fills the system.   But we are saying that the potentials of co-creation have been for too long occluded by economic and legal systems that privilege concentrations of power.  And especially now that we are seeing an undermining of legacy systems by the distributed logics of social data harvesters, now that things are in flux and uncertain and polarized, we are saying that deeply collaborative modes like co-creation are more important than ever. 


Katerina Cizek is a two-time Emmy-winning documentarian working across emergent media platforms. She is the Artistic Director of the Co-Creation Studio at MIT’s Open Documentary Lab. Recently, she wrote (with William Uricchio and 12 co-authors) a ground-breaking field study on co-creative practices in the arts, journalism and documentary, entitled Collective Wisdom. As a documentarian for over a decade at the National Film Board of Canada, she helped redefine the organization as one of the world’s leading digital content hubs, with the Filmmaker-in-Residence and HIGHRISE projects. Both community-based and globally recognized, these two ground-breaking serial and digital projects garnered: a Peabody award, a World Press Photo Prize, 3 Canadian Screen Awards, amongst others. Cizek has forged unconventional, co-creative partnerships with such diverse organizations ranging from an inner-city teaching hospital to Mozilla Foundation, to The New York Times. Her projects are also interventionist, and co-creative: they have significantly contributed to conversations about health-care policy, urban planning as well as the health outcomes and living conditions of the participants themselves. Cizek’s earlier human rights documentary film projects have instigated criminal investigations, changed UN policies, and have screened as evidence at an International Criminal Tribunal. Cizek's films include the Hampton-Prize winner Seeing is Believing: Handicams, Human Rights and the News (2002, co-directed with Peter Wintonick), In Search of the African Queen: A People Smuggling Operation (1999, co-director), and The Dead are Alive: Eyewitness in Rwanda (1995 editor, co-writer, narrator). She is frequently invited to travel internationally to teach, advise and share innovative approaches to the documentary genre, emergent media and journalism.

William Uricchio revisits the histories of old media when they were new; explores interactive and participatory documentary; writes about the past and future of television; thinks a lot about algorithms and archives; and researches cultural identities and the question of "Americanization" in the 20th and 21st centuries. He is Professor of Comparative Media Studies, Principal Investigator of the MIT Open Documentary Lab, and faculty director of the MISTI-Netherlands Program. He is also Professor of Comparative Media History at Utrecht University in the Netherlands and has held visiting professorships at the Freie Universität Berlin, Stockholm University, the Georg-August-Universität Göttingen (Lichtenberg-Kolleg), China University of Science and Technology, and in Denmark where he was DREAM professor. He has been awarded Guggenheim, Humboldt and Fulbright fellowships and the Berlin Prize; and was Holtzbrinck Fellow at the American Academy in Berlin. His publications include Reframing Culture; We Europeans? Media, Representations, Identities; Media Cultures; Many More Lives of the Batman; and hundreds of essays and book chapters, including a visual "white paper" on the documentary impulse ( He is currently completing a book on the deep history and possible futures of documentary; and another on games and playing with history and historiography after post-structuralism.

Fan Materiality and Affect: Interview with Nicolle Lamerichs (Part 4)



Going back to our discussion earlier of the affective turn in fandom studies, you place a strong focus in the book on the “affective process” of cosplay. For you, this process includes the factors that shape the selection of a character and the ways this choice brings to the surface issues surrounding the body, the social community, and in particular, notions of gender and sexuality. You describe the spaces surrounding cosplay as “restructured around pride and generosity as well as shame and jealousy.” How would you describe the ways that these spaces have evolved to help participants work through some of the affects they are experiencing? 


This is a very relevant question and yes, intervention is sometimes needed. Conventions had to do active work the past years to protect cosplayers and create an inclusive environment. After several incidents, like the “cosplay is not harassment” incidents, conventions started to put up posters with instructions on how to treat cosplayers. Different conventions that I volunteered for myself, such as YaYCon, strengthened their code of conduct and policies. Some conventions have introduced listeners by now to help fans feel protected and safe when incidents emerge. 

The community was also self-regulating to some degree the past years. We held different panels discussed inclusivity and cosplay in Europe. I even sat in with some, for instance a panel on cosplay and age at Animecon moderated by my fellow-cosplay researcher Karen Heinrich. In open conversations and panels, people addressed problematic aspects of fandom.  

Fan conventions can still be problematic spaces, though. That’s why conventions and fans need to make a fist and strive for inclusivity together.    


Does cosplay necessarily involve identification with the character being constructed? What are some of the other ways that fans might relate to these characters? 


Cosplayers relate to the characters in numerous ways, as my informants showed me. Some choose a character design, rather than a character, because they are looking for a creative challenge. Others cosplay in a group, and choose the character that most befits them or is not taken. Again others make a choice in terms of identity – age, body type. Though you can play with age and size in cosplay, as many do, some want their cosplays to be aligned with their appearance.  

Cosplay is a very versatile hobby, and it’s amazing to see that fans really explore different characters as they continue to cosplay. Some professionalize and engage in competitions, and they also have a very different approach to their cosplay choice. They look for something that can tell a story, be an interesting performance or skit, and the costume should also impress. People often don’t see the share amounts of creativity goes into a cosplay. That is one of the parts that I find most attractive about it, really. There is such a strong creative drive in this community.    


Cosplay is a rich example of transcultural exchange within an increasingly globalized fan culture. What has changed within cosplay as these practices move back and forth between Japan and the United States? 


I can’t speak for the United States at all, but here are some small insights. Some changes that I observed in Europe the past years is that there is a strong global cosplay community emerging around many different international competitions, such as World Cosplay Summit in Nagoya. There is a tendency to standardize skits more in local competitions, to prime them for bigger, international events. Whether I’m in The Netherlands, Belgium or Germany, I see similar cosplay skits in terms of content and pacing. That used to be very different.  

Furthermore, the fan economy of cosplay is booming. Cosplay and other fan practices are increasingly an economy in their own right. Fan fashion is sold on Etsy, eBay and elsewhere. Some of it is fan-driven, other objects are official cosplays sold by companies. Many online shops have emerged in Europe that sell to cosplayers specifically with specific fabrics and crafting supplies.  

Actual fashion is becoming a lot like cosplay, with high-level brands launching collections inspired by popular culture. This fashion sometimes caters to a very privileged audience and may exclude the fans, which I write about in the edited collection Sartorial Fandom which will come out next year. I look forward to that book a lot since it will offer different perspectives on costumes, accessories and fashion, and their significance in fandom.  



Throughout the book, you offer accounts of different fan conventions you have attended -- each of which represents a somewhat different set of practices, a range of fan identities and materials. What continuities do you see across these fan gatherings, despite the differences you identify? What do these case studies help us to understand about the local particulars of fandom? 


I have learned much about these cultures, but what continues to surprise me most is that all over the world - ranging from the United States to Japan, Germany and the Netherlands - fans find a common ground and expression. Although fan practices emerge in particular local contexts, fans around the world share these creative and social practices. At fan gatherings across the world I see a love for characters, stories and play. But they also mean business, even if the events are fan-driven.  

While these communities are meaningful for many fans, we always need to ask: ‘For which fans?’ I just came back from Worldcon, where Archive of Our Own won a Hugo. The ceremony ended with a “loser party” for those that didn’t get a Hugo, and because the party was full, several authors (including non-binary ones and authors of color) could not attend their own party.  

These communities are not perfect and they draw a specific group that can afford to meet up offline. When I was in Atlanta for DiGRA and Dragon Con, I had a really good chat with the waiter at my hotel. He had spotted my membership, and was a huge geek who had lived in Atlanta all of his life. He was excited to share his favorite films, shows and comics with me. But he also admitted that he had never been to Dragon Con. He simply could not afford it. Hierarchy and privilege are very real in these spaces.  


You begin the book by saying that you are refusing to create “essentialized” fan identities around issues of race and ethnicity. But this perspective flies in the face of contemporary trends to focus more attention on the ways race and racism shapes the social dynamics of fandom. Can these two approaches be reconciled?


That’s a very difficult question I’ve been grappling with it a lot this year, believe me. I absolutely think we can find a common ground, for instance through interdisciplinary work and an intersectional approach. I am a social constructivist, and that is also where the argument that you refer to came through, and what’s explained in that section. Again, essentialism is about reduction but I am in favor of looking at all the axes of someone’s identity, including race, gender, sexuality and age. I like to look at each person in an audience as an individual. I want to give a voice to them. This is a big drive in my work.

You are right that we should emphasize race more. Fandom studies is increasingly critiqued for its cultural assumptions, and rightly so. Many fandom studies present an imaginary fan, and hardly spell out what cultures these fans come from. What is presented as a kind of global fan is actually a Caucasian, native English-speaker, most likely from North-America. These assumptions are painful to watch for many fan scholars who come from different countries and traditions, who do spell out that they study Japanese, Indian or Polish fans. Being specific helps, and that has always been my credo. But that perhaps also has to do with the nature of my fieldwork, across many different countries and language traditions. But I think that for everyone in our field needs to spell out which fans they are actually studying.  

You recently had a blog entry by Rukmini Pande that touched upon these issues too. We had a Twitter incident earlier this year, for which I apologized, and I could not stress this more: I wholeheartedly agree with her and I am so sorry that I did not show more empathy. The incident still bothers me, especially since I’m a queer European woman who is so invested in making this field better. And I do believe we can do better in terms of cultural research. Much better. The way forward requires solid research, but also empathy and kindness within our community.  

We need to be kind to each other as we work through a difficult time, globally. No country or region is the same. Because we all struggle with local problems and contexts too, we don’t always zoom out. As I’m writing this blog, the humanities are slowly being defunded in The Netherlands, and every day I worry whether we’ll even media or cultural studies bachelors in the next few years. In such a context, it’s easy to become blind to systemic problems in our field. I have been in survival mode the past few years, and it’s hard to see a future in academia some days.

The way forward requires solid research, but also empathy and kindness within our community. You never know what other people are really going through behind the screen. That’s why we need to be kind.

black supes.jpg

Dr. Nicolle Lamerichs is senior lecturer and team lead at Creative Business at HU University of Applied Sciences, Utrecht. She holds a PhD in media studies from Maastricht University (2014). In her book Productive Fandom (2018), she explores intermediality, affect, costuming and creativity in fan cultures. Her research focuses on participatory culture and new media, specifically the nexus between popular culture, storytelling and play.

Fan Materiality and Affect: Interview with Nicolle Lamerichs (Part 3)



Your book can also be understood as part of a new emphasis on materiality within fandom studies. You write, “Stuff – bodies, fabrics, plastic – allows us to tell stories.” What general claims might we make about the ways that fans make meaning and form affective relations with “stuff”? Are there specific sites which become more central to the field as we begin to take materiality seriously as part of our approach. 


Very good question! Stuff, whether it’s merchandise or fabric, has meaning. This can show in multiple things – our relationships with our collections, our fashion and fan apparel, our archives. There’s a certain performativity to stuff – we want these archives and collections to be seen by others. They are closely connected to our fan identity and how we perform that in front of others.  

Stuff is also related to creative practices and media. When a cosplayer chooses a certain fabric to represent a game character, that is an aesthetic choice. Something may seem a “thing” but it is also used as a medium by fans to express themselves. Furthermore, merchandise and stuff embodies the characters that we love. Again, it’s all about affective reception really, it  allows us to form loving relationships with the characters that mean something to us.  

Also, objects can tell stories long after a text is finished. They allow a story to linger or continue in some form. In this sense William’s “post-object fandom” comes to mind. The official object might have ended, but other objects and material will continue to remediate it long after. I personally have a large collection of things related to Saturday morning cartoons, and they bring back that feeling of safety, family and homeliness that I often miss in my life today.   

As for where material culture is best studied, I think some sites do stand out. Theme parks, film sets, signings and fan conventions are highly suitable for a material analysis focusing on different things, from costumes to merchandise. Spaces of commerce are a valuable site too. Again, fandom is increasingly a market place, a space of business. To speak of it only as a gift economy neglects the many corporate practices that influence fandom today. Businesses, stores, and platforms sell fandom as a material culture quite heavily. It’s important to dive deep into what those Funko pops, Red Bubble T-shirts and idol photographs in Japan actually mean to people, what they represent. Objects can be keepsakes and toys, but also tell a wider personal or fannish story.   

Materiality, by the way, is by no means exclusively offline. Even written texts and fan fiction have materiality, which is related to the platforms that they are posted on.  It’s important to realize that even digital content has materiality, from pixels and bites to the algorithms that increasingly shape and filter fandom. You could even create an object-oriented ontology based entirely in virtual worlds, like Ian Bogost did. Objects are increasingly virtual, and the materiality of a like-button or an Instagram picture can also be analyzed.  


Your book often blurs the boundaries between fans and gamers, boundaries that I have seen heavily enforced by gamers and game scholars. What do we gain by looking at fandom as a “ludic identity”? What happens to foundational ideas in games studies, such as the magic circle, if we incorporate fan practices into our understanding of role-playing games? 


Yes, the first feedback I ever got at a games conference was that I could not call Firefly role-players “fans”. They were “players”. Scholars indeed police the boundaries of fields that in my experience could learn from each other and are adjacent to each other. Speaking from this specific case-study, not all Firefly role-players I investigated were fans, but the concept of “fan” allowed me to unpack their affective, social and creative relations to the story world. Calling them a player or a gamer seemed far too general for me, since they were working in an existing story world and remixing it heavily. In other words, their live-action role-play was analyzed a fan practice in my work and this interpretation led to new insights. I used “fan” as a concept to better understand what they do.  

Ludic identity can be applied to many phenomena we see today – eSports, cosplay, live-streaming play. To some extent, fandom can even be read as a space that always requires play to come up with new versions of beloved texts and characters. Some forms of ludic identity today are highly complex ones. I would argue that we see different participatory cultures emerge that bridge fan/gamer identities, for instance, the audience of a Dungeons & Dragons live-stream on Twitch. They are an audience, some might be fans, some role-play in other groups themselves. Or consider fans of The Adventure Zone, a Dungeons & Dragons podcast with a massive following. Some listeners have started role-playing because they enjoyed the show so much, others got inspired to create a podcast themselves. Can we have a ludic identity without being a participant of the play, while being outside of the magic circle?  

Game theory can learn a lot from fan studies and vice versa. The magic circle and ideas of transformative play map on to fandom, to some extent at least. A cosplay is a form of dress-up and pretend play that could be framed as part of the magic circle. But as you know, I am also very critical of magic circle as a concept. Within game studies, the concept of the magic circle has been heavily critiqued, and rightly so. Games and play are not separate from the everyday but are deeply embedded in other social contexts. The magic circle? There is no such thing, and if there is, it’s very porous. In reality, games affect everyday life and what happens in games can have lasting effects. Gaming can create loving communities, just like fandom, but marginalization is a fact. Speaking for myself, I haven’t outed myself as a woman in online games for ages, because some of these spaces are brutally toxic.  

Game studies, similar to fan studies, made the objects that it studied look beautiful for a long time. It didn’t want to discuss games as addictive or toxic spaces, partly to justify the existence of the field. Through incidents like Gamergate and recent shootings in the USA, for instance, we have realized that we have come to terms with the fact that pop-culture can also mobilize people for the worst. This is something we need to study, and I think fan/game studies can draw a lot from each other when studying participatory cultures as they are, both the good and bad.   


You stress “cosplay is less about developing or performing a character and more about constituting a visual resemblance with it.” What are the implications of stressing the visual in discussing cosplay as oppose to reading it through a performance studies lens? 


Both go hand in hand in my work, but the attention to visual and material culture brings attention to the craft. It moves attention from the performance and scene to the fabrics, the creative process, the visual aspects of the hobby and the places.

This is needed, because cosplay is not just a performance. It has performative elements, certainly at the end, but it’s also a complex affective trajectory. For most of my informants, the enjoyment was in creating the outfit and living up to the moment of wearing the costume. The craft mattered as much as the performance at the end. Only using performance as a word neglects that cosplayer is highly creative – s/he often also recreates the outfit and models in it. This is a very personal fan creation.

Performativity is a part of that, but the process involves so much more than that. That’s why I call it an “affective process” – it constantly develops and it consists of different stages. From the costume creation to the performance in a masquerade to a photo shoot, we can ask about different affects: What’s the affective relationship with characters, the convention space, with parts of the outfit, and even with our sewing machine?  

Cosplay is a network of different actors, and the individual performance is part of that. The recent book on cosplay by David Hancock and Garry Crawford dives deep into it as an art form and as design. That resonates with me as well. Cosplay is art, visual culture, storytelling, play and performance condensed in one hobby.


Dr. Nicolle Lamerichs is senior lecturer and team lead at Creative Business at HU University of Applied Sciences, Utrecht. She holds a PhD in media studies from Maastricht University (2014). In her book Productive Fandom (2018), she explores intermediality, affect, costuming and creativity in fan cultures. Her research focuses on participatory culture and new media, specifically the nexus between popular culture, storytelling and play.

Fan Materiality and Affect: Interview with Nicolle Lamerichs (Part 2)

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You draw heavily here on ideas from reception theory to explain the repertoires which fandom bring to bear on their favorite texts. Reception studies and fandom studies have existed in parallel for many decades now. What do they have to teach each other?


Indeed, reception theory resonated with me early on in my academic career, and I’m specifically interested in reader-response theory. When I was an undergraduate studying cultural studies and literature, the emphasis was always on texts and formal criticism. Somehow we felt that as academics, we had the best reading of texts. Since I had been active in fandom for a long time, that always seemed strange to me.

When my supervisor borrowed a copy of Wolfgang Iser’s Der Akt des Lesens, I was sold. During my various trips to the library, I dove deep into the reception theories of Jonathan Cullen to Monika Fludernik amongst others. Reception theory foregrounds the actual reading practice and how personal consuming media really is. It is always connected to our competences, repertoires and imagination. This theory helps understand how media fans situate their readings and interpret narrative blanks. It enables us to pay attention to each individual person. What I find so valuable about this theory is that it allows us to get specific. There is not one ideal reader or fan in these theories. Rather, each reader or consumer is considered unique in this theory.  

What follows is that each interpretation is personal and different and shaped by our history, identity and worldview. This resonates with me. I don’t think there is one formal close-reading possible of any text. Fans see very different things in texts. When I went to the Lion King with friends, some of us were impressed and nostalgic, while others were disgusted by the style, aesthetics and Disney’s business model of constantly remixing their own products. We see different things in texts that are shaped by our culture, political views, and personal taste. That’s also where a fandom can clash heavily, which we have seen in the reception of films like Star Wars: The Last Jedi.  

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Being on one level with the fans and readers is what I find highly attractive about  many reader-response theories. Like other audiences, I rely on my competences. I do not have a position of privilege or a “preferred” reading to offer. I just provide a context. That is not to say that I do not offer close-readings in my work, but I offer them in a humble way, and often by relating a text to other texts, and its culture of production.  


Your book can be understood as part of a larger process of fan scholars shifting focus onto the affective dimensions of fan experiences and identities. As a first generation fandom scholar, I often found it difficult to talk about the emotional dimensions of fandom for two reasons: 1) a lack of theoretical resources for discussing affect more generally and 2) an anxiety that a focus on affect would keep alive the image of the fan as irrational in their response to media texts. What has shifted in terms of these two issues which makes an affective turn in fandom studies more possible and desirable? 


Those are good points. As for the first, there is such a wealth of affective theory that discusses affect in general terms. You could draw from the philosophical tradition - Descartes, Deleuze and Guattari, Massumi. These are solid readings, but their understanding of affect is very ontological. More practical is feminist work of Sara Ahmed and Lauren Berlant, for instance. Phenomenology could be another entry point, especially if you are interested in the role of the body, with leading thinkers like Sobchack. Finally there is social-constructivist work on affect which is very concrete, and shows how affect is constructed through certain activities. Thinkers like Hennion and Gomart truly inspire in this sense.  

By now there is more work on affect emerging in our field and adjacent fields (e.g. queer studies). Some fan scholars might also find their way to affect via fan studies itself, for instance through Grossberg’s work. However, I would always recommend looking beyond fan studies and engaging with different studies on affect from different fields.   

As for your second point, this anxiety around stigmatizing fans is still there in many fields. I worked at some departments where my concern with affect and emotional reception was mocked. Depending on what university you work at, you will still see an interest that gravitates towards formal readings and “proper” criticism. Affective reading has been seen as a fallacy in literary studies for a long time. The ideal reader maintains his distance and thereby his critical disposition. Fans themselves however show that affective reading does not exclude criticism. They discuss and evaluate texts, remix, socialize, and immerse themselves in the text deeply. All these practices go hand in hand for them, why should we be any different as academics?  

That being said, these ideas of “emotional fans” are sticky ones, also in fandom. Male fans are quite prone to casting themselves in the role of a critic. For instance, when I asked a few male fans about shipping during an interview, I was mocked: ‘Shipping is such a stupid word, and we don’t care about romance.’ For a deeper reading on how affective and transformative fan practices are policed, I recommend Suzanne Scott’s Fake Geek Girls. Fans are not stigmatized, emotions are, women are. It’s up to us to feed back into academic and popular discourses and provide a full picture. But just dodging emotions, including the negative and toxic emotions that many fans shape their identity around, is not the way.  

Fandom is big and mainstream by now. It is at the forefront of culture, politics and digital communication. Simply making fans look great, distant, and “rational” is not the solution. Neither should we keep augmenting their creativity and activism. We need to tell it as is. Fandom is not beautiful. Fandom involves a lot of disaffect, hate and marginalization. Let’s focus on the lived experience of fans, rather than staying so concerned with justifying our field.  


A focus on affect, for example, justifies your emphasis on the centrality of characters to fan engagement with specific texts. You write, “television characters can be understood as embodied vessels of thes desires. The reception of fans and producers shows a love for reintroducing characters and deepening them. That is not surprising. Real emotions, after all, are not triggered by events, but by the characters who endure them, the memorable individuals like Sherlock Holmes whom we learn to know and

love time and time again.” Do characters need to be psychological rounded or realist in order to generate these forms of affective commitments? Or can a character function simply as a trigger for emotional responses? Why does fan fiction tend to push towards an understanding of the hidden motives and psychology of fictional characters as compared with their construction in the source material? 


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I love that you bring up characters! Indeed, characters are key. Fans identify with them, speculate about them, embody them. Today’s characters are fascinating to study. They come in many forms and media, and are often deeply embedded in different transmedia contexts. In a way these characters are highly “networked”, which I discuss often with my colleague Lukas Wilde from Tubingen University. When different transmedia products seemingly contradict the characters and their development, clashes happen. Think of the debates around how Luke Skywalker was portrayed in The Last Jedi.  

I don’t think a character needs to be particularly round to generate affect. The flat characters that we often see in manga and anime fandom (many of which are mascots or tropes) are just as beloved by fans as characters like Hannibal Lecter. Some characters are definitely triggers. Cute characters like Hello Kitty or Mickey Mouse might be good examples. Their cuteness generates ideas about youth and childhood, but can even a bit eerie.  

Characters feel real to fans. In other words, they have “emotional realism”, which Ien Ang has also written about. Even if a plot line is outrageous, we want characters to make choices that make sense to us. Characters have a sense of realness or “experientality”, to use Monika Fludernik’s concept. They are not actually real, but as readers we like to  think about them as if they are real. In fandom, this reality and reasoning of the characters matters. When they behave out of character, or when there is dissonance, fans either distance themselves from the work or psychologize the characters very deeply. 

Characters are central to fandom and affective reception. I’d love to bring more character studies to our field, to be honest!


Dr. Nicolle Lamerichs is senior lecturer and team lead at Creative Business at HU University of Applied Sciences, Utrecht. She holds a PhD in media studies from Maastricht University (2014). In her book Productive Fandom (2018), she explores intermediality, affect, costuming and creativity in fan cultures. Her research focuses on participatory culture and new media, specifically the nexus between popular culture, storytelling and play.


Fan Materiality and Affect: Interview with Nicolle Lamerichs (Part 1)

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Having shared the syllabus for my Fandom Studies PhD seminar last week, and stressed there the importance of work that moves race to the center of our understanding of the field, I wanted to use this week to stress some other important developments in the field of fandom studies. Nicole Lamerichs’s new book, Productive Fandom: Intermediality and Affective Reception in Fan Cultures, embodies at least four key trends that seem important to me, each of which will get discussed over the next four installments,

First, she represents the greater emphasis on the national specificity of fandom. Too often, early work — my own included — reads Anglo-American fan culture as “universal” or at least was not especially interested in its cultural specificity. Lamerichs, however, introduces a specifically European (and more particularly Low Country) vantage point within fandom studies, More than that, her interest in games and anime fandom encourages her to think about transcultural exchanges. A strength of her book are a series of ethnographic observations of different fan conventions and the cultural contexts within which they operate.

This focus on local particulars grows out of a second trend she represents — a shift back towards the physical world after several decades of emphasis placed on on-ine fandom. Of course, more and more, we recognize the complex integration that occurs across our physical and virtual lives, but she’s pushing us to reconnect with what we are missing about the material aspects of fandom.

And I see this focus on materiality as leading to a third concern with bodily performance. She is part of a growing emphasis in the field on cosplay, fan fashion, and the use of textiles as a means of expressing fan identities. Some of this has to do with bringing performance studies more decisively into conversation with fandom studies and some of it has to do with connecting fan studies with interests in fashion and craft

Finally, her work points to a larger and overdue engagement with affect studies within our field. In my own early work, I pushed back against the emotional dimensions of fandom in favor of what Matt Hills called the cognitive dimensions, though I still contend that the study of meaning is linked to the idea of meaningfulness which for fans has to do with affect as well as cognition. But we lacked the rich vocabulary for thinking about affect that has emerged across disciplines in recent years. I am excited to see some of that language begin to find its ways into fandom research.

Lamerichs is not alone in any of these interests, but her work makes serious contributions on each of these levels. And I am using this interview to focus attention on these significant developments.


I want to start with a series of questions that pull to the surface some of your core methodological and theoretical choices here. In both your introduction and conclusion, you stress your focus on materially grounded -- rather than digital -- forms of fan experience. What do you feel has been lost as fandom studies, from your perspective, has placed too much emphasis on online identities and experiences?


That is an important question and at the heart of my work. By emphasizing the online spaces of fandom, often exclusively, we have painted a narrow picture of what contemporary fandom is about. In my experience, media fandom is highly affective and moves betwixt and between different online and offline spaces. Such heterogeneous groups that are best studied by a mixed method approach. Depending on what aspect of fandom we study, our methodology includes offline spaces.  

In our field, there has been a heavy focus on specific practices, such as digital fan fiction, but fandom has a lot to offer. Doing research in offline spaces allows us to examine the communities and identities of fans, their art, embodiment and feelings. Material culture is an entry point to study these different creative practices, hierarchies and stories in the flesh. All kinds of creative practices can be influenced by our fan identity, from crafting, knitting and eating to fashion.  

Materiality allows us to focus on objects, and through those objects, on identities. For instance, I interviewed cosplayers in costume at fan conventions. They showed me parts of their outfits and explained how they created them, and what they meant to them. But I could also focus on what the convention means to them as a place. Physical spaces such as a convention are places of imagination -  they bring together locations, stories and people. Scholarship on media tourism also emphasizes this, by paying attention to spaces like theme parks or film sets. Space can be sold and marketed to fans.  

That brings me to the point that material culture is not neutral, but deeply related to consumer culture as well. We live in an increasingly complex fan economy that has been unpacked by Benjamin Woo and Lincoln Geraghty, for instance, who did work around shops and collector practices. Fandom is not just a gift economy, but a neoliberal market. In this sense, the offline does not exist in a vacuum but constantly intersects with business, media and platforms. The global gig economy of Amazon and Uber is a great example. It goes beyond the digital and shapes the way we organize our cities and infrastructure. Such a rapidly changing datafied society requires constant interdisciplinary work and reflection.  



You describe yourself as coming from a European perspective. What are some of the ways that this vantage point informs your choices and conclusions here? For example, you did a case study of Dutch fans of Sherlock.  Many of the fans you discuss seem to possess strong cross-cultural competencies, which are consistent with claims about how the internet has led to new forms of pop cosmopolitanisms. In what ways did local knowledge come into play here? Would some of these findings have been different in, say, a country like Turkey which has a more influential local media industry and greater forces seeking to isolate local fans from transnational and transcultural currents? 


I am happy that you bring up culture, and cross/trans-cultural competences. Cultural dynamics is one of my favorite topics. I am happy that it is increasingly getting attention in fan studies. The work of Lori Morimoto and Bertha Chin stands out in this regard, for instance.  

You refer to the Sherlock case-study, which was a reception study of the text, based on a focus group and interviews. Questions about the text itself, the context and characters were key here. What I found was that fans mobilize their Dutch competences and repertoires when interpreting BBC Sherlock. Their interpretation of the canon and corpus cuts across cultures, but also heavily draws from their local culture as well. Sherlock is compared to different Dutch detective shows and genres, to other European detective shows such as Tatort, to tease out what makes it essentially English and foreign.  

Countries have unique fan practices, interpretations, and ways of communicating in fandom. If we’d launch a similar study in Turkey, we’d find different forms of communication, creativity and  activism, shaped by, for instance, its political landscape and media landscape. Sometimes there are legal and social restrictions as well. Think about Russia, where some of the fan fiction scene takes place underground, as our colleague Natalia Samutina once pointed out to me.   

Fandom is far from global, even though some concepts travel and spread widely. We need to be specific about cultural practices, including politics. Participatory culture can be a force for change, as you showed us, but can also lead to toxic messages spreading fast. As fan studies scholars, I feel we need to share our insights especially in these difficult times. 



You describe your approach as grounded in “geek feminism” in contrast to the aca-fan perspective. What are some of the defining traits of “geek feminism” and how do they manifest themselves in your work? 


The viewpoint of “geek feminism” promotes critical online and offline activity that supports women and brings about change. The term was coined by Mary Bucholtz to outline a theoretical and socially engaged stance informed by the legacy of feminism while retaining geek identity. She defined it as a “social practice”, continuously influenced by different social spheres. I felt that “geek” fitted me and the people that I study. The cosplayers in my book, for instance, were not always hardcore fans of one particular genre, but rather interested in Japanese pop-culture as a whole. Geek connotes enthusiasts and hobbyists, and even suggests a particular life-style that swirls around internet or gaming capital.  

Geek feminism requires a specific research stance as well – for me, it’s about seeing research as a constant dialogue, and being inclusive and specific in your studies. It also points to the affective relationships between me and my informants. I see my research as a dialogue to bring European voices to this field. This stance is innately tied up with my identity as a woman and “geek girl”, a type of fan that is often discredited in the industry and by male gate-keepers. Suzanne Scott’s Fake Geek Girls discusses the identity of the geek girl in a very clear and accessible way, I really recommend her work in this sense. The identity of the female geek is re-invented through these commercial paradigms. She is often overlooked or excluded as a creative fan that operates outside of the media industry. 

Working as a geek feminist also means that I give back to fandom in different ways. I chaired the LGBTQ+ convention YaYCon in The Netherlands for the past ten years, and took care of critical panels and content as well. Each year we do critical and informative panels on what it means to be asexual, trans or a fan of color in fandom. I was also part of an expertise team for an inclusive exhibition on cosplay (Character Building) in Rotterdam last year at MAMA. We arranged this exhibition as live creative space where non-white, non-binary and queer cosplayers made their costumes. Inclusivity and love are key values of MAMA. That’s the kind of work I do on the side and I believe it matters.  

In other words, being a geek feminist mean that  you are committed to making change in a constructive and positive way.   


Dr. Nicolle Lamerichs is senior lecturer and team lead at Creative Business at HU University of Applied Sciences, Utrecht. She holds a PhD in media studies from Maastricht University (2014). In her book Productive Fandom (2018), she explores intermediality, affect, costuming and creativity in fan cultures. Her research focuses on participatory culture and new media, specifically the nexus between popular culture, storytelling and play.


Harry Potter Fandom in an Illiberal Democracy

I am always on the look out for research which can shed light on the diverse forms participatory culture takes around in the world and in particular, the impact participatory culture has on the political realm (what my collaborators and I like to discuss as The Civic Imagination.) I was, thus, pleased to receive email this summer from a scholar in Hungary — Tibor Desswffy — who is doing research on the ways Harry Potter is being deployed in political struggles within his country, which he describes as “an illiberal democracy.” I have circled around the example of Harry Potter both in my own scholarly writing and on this blog, including a report on the forms Harry Potter fandom was taking in Russia and an interview with Andrew Slack, who was then a leader in the Harry Potter Alliance. When I read the draft of his scholarly essay, I asked if he could write a shorter summing up of the key findings to share here with the readers of my blog.

Harry Potter Fandom in an Illiberal Democracy

Tibor Dessewffy

Life in an illiberal democracy, anything but boring. Recently, for example, I run into a plea from Márton Békés, "Gramsci is ours - read it, interpret it, use it!" Békés is not a marginalized left-wing thinker - just the contrary. He is the Director of Research at the House of Terror, a Disneyland kind of history museum, which aim to display the crimes of the twentieth century.

The House of Terror is a central institution for the construction of Orban's cultural hegemony. Its visit is strongly recommended to schools by the government and when May 2018 Steve Bannon flew into Budapest to give an invitation-only lecture, a visit to the Terror House was squeezed into his busy schedule. But the Museum  also represents significant disproportionality: while the Hungarian collaboration with the Nazis, that leads to the deportation and mass-murdering of 600 000 Hungarian Jew occupies two rooms, the crimes of the communist era are portrayed in 22.

Thus Békés, who holds several other positions besides being an instrumental part of the House of Terror, is an important right-wing ideologue whose fascination with Gramsci draws attention to a strange feature one can observe throughout Europe: while the left is almost completely devoid of striving to create hegemony, the virulent right-wing demagogic populism is building consciously and successfully in this area.

This is surprising when one considers the fact that, in the diverse world of popular culture there is a marked presence of highly successful texts that could help to strengthen a liberal progressive worldview. For the sake of simplicity, here I will focus on just one element of this, often elaborated in the literature, the Harry Potter universe. The reason for this choice is that the Potterverse's popularity, value, and political activism are well documented in the academia. (following the inequalities in the scientific world, these are primarily demonstrated in the Anglo-Saxon context)

In contrast, in Orban’s Hungary, there is almost no social activism. This is partly because the regime, is very conscious of preventing the emergence of such movements, and although not with Putin’s or Erdogan’s brutality crashing them down. But in the all-encompassing apathy, two further questions arise and our research focuses on answering these.

 1. How popular is Potterverse in Hungary? After all, although it would contradict to our intuition, in principle, these messages may resonate less in Hungarian society.

 2. If the answer to the previous question is that Harry Potter, is indeed, popular in Hungary then maybe the values, ambitions, and activities of the fandom differ from international experience, like for instance, in the often discussed case of the Harry Potter Alliance.

Therefore, we need to examine the activity repertoire and preferences of the Hungarian Harry Potter fandom. Here we embarked on an innovative methodological development: we tried to reconstruct these preferences from public pages in the social media. (Although, I find the potentials of this method very exciting for cultural research, I won't discuss that here.)

1 Looking at the popularity of the Harry Potter universe, we find that Harry Potter is not just popular, but in fact, its public reception is overwhelming.

A glance at the Hungarian fan fiction site, Merengő, underscores this. Merengő was established in 2004 and fifteen years later it has 17. 341 fanfictions by 4,462 authors. The single biggest category books, with 7486 fanfictions, where fans wrote further chapters and books related to their beloved bestsellers. What we find here are the conservative authors who best embody the values of the governing party that seeks to establish a cultural hegemony are hardly exist at all. On the contrary, the list of books that top the rankings of novels that have inspired the most efforts to weave the storyline of the original further looks as follows: Game of Thrones 63; Twilight 370; and Harry Potter 6,923 pieces of original fanfictions!

This stunning level of activity can be explained in part by the fact that Harry Potter is not the only popular among active and creative fans in Hungary - the series has a vast social base. According to a survey of reading habits, JK Rowling is the most popular author among Hungarian teenagers today who tends to cite Harry Potter as their favorite book. That is why it is no exaggeration to claim is not a single novel or work of fiction that is capable of generating a reading fever on par with that unleashed by Harry Potter, which has emerged as a shared experience of an entire generation. ”[1]

Actually, Hungarian government policy evokes an awareness of Harry Potter's popularity and has reacted to it: The State Secretariat for Education, Rose Hoffmann, justifies the introduction of a new uniform and centrally mandated elementary school curriculum by arguing that "significant changes can be expected, "Harry Potter is slowly taking the place of János vitéz [one of the classic pieces of Hungarian literature]."[2]

2 Thus, we can assert that even under the conditions of illiberal democracy, the popularity of Harry Potter is undiminished.

 It is important to stress that in the prevailing Hungarian situation the values exuded by the Harry Potter universe can be of substantial interest. What we seek to explore is how the Harry Potter series, which openly espouses the values of tolerance, acceptance, and social openness, can be so successful in a social context where right-wing political attitudes, national pride and anti-migration views continue to be typical of young peoples – who are at the same time also broadly characterized by political apathy and a basic commitment to democracy.

Therefore, we investigate how this value disposition correlates with other political/public affairs affinities. We researched interests, affinities, and actives patterns as they can be reconstructed from public Facebook activities. A huge advantage of this method as compared to the standard survey methodologies is that through its use of digital footprints it provides the analysis with data taken from actual online behavior.

 In the forthcoming paper, we present the preferences and attitudes of the 14,200 anonymized Facebook users from 35 Harry Potter relevant platforms, who were included in the sample we generated for our social media analysis.


One observation about the users with an affinity for Harry Potter is that they exhibit a high level of non-party related political activity, as 85% of them were active in our on some Facebook page, group, or event involving a public affairs issue. This ratio was very high compared to the average Hungarian Facebook users (the overrepresentation score, compare to the average Facebook users, was 26). Half of the users with Harry Potter affinity (50%) were active on the platforms of political parties, which is also higher than the Hungarian average (the overrepresentation score was 15) 

We also examined how active Harry Potter fans were on the pages of civic organizations, social movements, as well as charity and welfare organizations. The analysis reveals that based on their Facebook footprints, 40% of Harry Potter fans are active on charity-related Facebook pages, which is also rather high compared to the often-mentioned general apathy of Hungarian society. (the overrepresentation score was a 4). We also observed that 35% of them are interested in civic organizations, NGOs, or some type of social movement (the overrepresentation score for this segment was a 7).

The analysis of media consumption revealed that the major left-wing/liberal news sites and left-wing political blogs. We observed higher than average levels of activity on the Facebook pages of these media outlets. However, blogs and newspapers heavily influenced by the Orbán government did not score well; the overlap between the target group’s online activity and these sites is 1%. The media consumption patterns of the Harry Potter group demonstrate openness to left-wing/ liberal media and a lack of interest in pro-government news outlets.

Concerning political parties, we can assert is that the group of persons with Harry Potter affinity exhibited manifold and often opposing party preferences. When looking at their activities on the platforms of the various political parties in Hungary, Harry Potter fans were most active on the pages of the Hungarian Two-tailed Dog Party (26%), an anti-establishment satirical party that is extraordinarily popular in the online space and on social media pages. Their most prominent slogan is “Free beer and eternal life for everybody.” It followed by the radical right-wing Jobbik Movement for a Better Hungary  (9%) and Momentum (5%). Even though in polls with a 36% level of support among the youngest cohort of voters, Orbán’s Fidesz enjoys the highest level of support, which makes it all the more striking that we did not see any activities on the part of Harry Potter fans on Fidesz-related platforms.

The Momentum Movement is a small centrist-liberal party that was founded in March 2017, and thus we only had one year’s worth of data on Momentum-related activity in the data collection period (as opposed to the four years of data collection on the other parties).

Summarizing the above, it appears that Harry Potter fans evince not only a high level of interest in public affairs and politics but are also sensitive when it comes to social and welfare-related issues.

These findings are supported by the results of European Value Study. Trust in and the social acceptance of political institutions is at a low point in Western societies and in Hungary even more so, especially among the younger generations.

The basic question we explored in our research was whether being a fan of Harry Potter is correlated with a more open attitude towards public affairs and reflects more active social/political attitudes. Based on the empirical examples examined here, it can be asserted that this relationship unequivocally exists. And even if we can't prove it right now, one of the most important questions in Hungary today is whether these existing values will be able to turn into significant political activism.

The esteemed reader may recall that Momentum, a generational party founded in 2017 that explicitly seeks to attract and represent youths, has generated sufficient online reaction to be measurable in our research despite the lack of a long history. Still, the party failed to reach the parliamentary threshold of 5% in the national election of April 2018. After that failure, they adopted a new strategy, which was leaked to the press. The first point of this new strategy was the “Construction of social ties - creating a Dumbledore Army.”[3] In the European election of May 2019, Momentum achieved a stunning breakthrough when it won 10% of the votes, receiving a spectacular 17% in the Hungarian capital, Budapest.

Tibor Dessewffy, Mikes Mezei:   Fandom and Politics in an illiberal democracy    (forthcoming: Transformative Works and Cultures special issue on Fandom and Politics March 2020 )

Tibor Dessewffy, Mikes Mezei: Fandom and Politics in an illiberal democracy (forthcoming: Transformative Works and Cultures special issue on Fandom and Politics March 2020 )

We do not suggest that this particular success owed to their references to Harry Potter, but what we can nevertheless say with certainty is that under the illiberal Orbán regime it was the newcomer party that actively used the Harry Potter mythology to mobilize the Harry Potter generation which generated perhaps the most spectacular unexpected electoral result. As the party chairman, András Fekete-Győr confirmed, “the Harry Potter universe is relevant both as an inspiration within the organization and to successfully reach out to the new generation”.[4] It remains to be seen how far the utilization of Harry Potter narratives will take Momentum in stimulating political activism, and how much impact they will have on Hungary by so doing. But it could be useful as a building block in a Gramscian hegemony and awakening dormant values in society.





 [4] Personal correspondence with the author



Back to School Special: Transmedia Entertainment


Last time, I shared the revised syllabus for my PhD Seminar on Fandom, Participatory Culture and Web 2.0. Today, I want to share my up-dated syllabus on Transmedia Entertainment. Here, the changes are less dramatic; there has been an explosion of new writing about transmedia among academics and I have incorporated state of the art research into the course readings. But there is nothing as dramatic as a paradigm shift on the level of the debates around race and nationality in fandom we discussed last time.

The core framework has changed very little since the last time I taught the class three years ago, even if the selection of cases and readings has shifted some. I take advantage of our Los Angeles location to bring an interesting mix of speakers to the class, people who are out there doing ground-breaking work and can introduce a grounded perspective to my students. Most of the students who take this class are from the Cinema School, many of them want to break into the mainstream entertainment industry, and the course has developed a reputation as one which helps them to understanding the big picture of how Hollywood is functioning right now.

That said, it is far from clear how much longer the transmedia term will operate in its current form. Academic institutions have embraced it even as it has more and more fallen from use in the entertainment industry. As one of my guest speakers said in our first class session, “there is no transmedia industry; there is only the entertainment industry.” Transmedia perspectives are everywhere and nowhere when we look at what’s happening at, say, Disney+ and the D23 conference a few weeks ago. At the same time, I am starting to see faculty teaching Trans Media classes, which focus on programs like Pose or Orange is the New Black or any number of independent films which take up transgender perspectives. So it isn’t just that the term has lost its meaning in the industry but it is also developing competing meanings within the academy. Something is going to have to give. But for now, here’s what I am teaching this term.

CTCS 482: Transmedia Entertainment

Fall 2017

Tuesdays 2:00-5:50pm

SCA 316

4 units 

Contact Information:

Henry Jenkins

Office: ASC 101C

TA: Jesse Tollison

 Please send all inquiries regarding office hour appointments to Jocelyn Kelvin and questions regarding the course to Professor Jenkins or Jesse Tollison.


We now live in a moment where every story, image, brand, and relationship plays itself out across the maximum number of media platforms, shaped top down by decisions made in corporate boardrooms and bottom up by decisions made in teenagers’ bedrooms. The concentrated ownership of media conglomerates increases the desirability of properties that can exploit “synergies” among different parts of the medium system and “maximize touchpoints” with different niches of audiences. The result has been a push toward franchise-building in general and transmedia entertainment in particular. 

A transmedia story represents the integration of entertainment experiences across a range of media platforms. Franchises, such as The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, The Marvel Cinematic Universe, Harry Potter or Riverdale move fluidly across media platforms (television, film, comics, games, the web, even alternate or virtual reality) picking up new audiences as they go and allowing the most dedicated fans to drill deeper. The fans, in turn, may translate their interests in the franchise into concordances and Wikipedia entries, fan fiction, vids, fan films, cosplay, game mods, and a range of other participatory practices that further extend the story world in new directions. Both the commercial and grassroots expansion of narrative universes contribute to a new mode of storytelling, one which is based on an encyclopedic expanse of information which gets put together differently by each individual, as well as processed collectively by social networks and online knowledge communities. 

Each class session will introduce a concept central to our understanding of transmedia entertainment that we will explore through a combination of lectures, screenings, and conversations with industry insiders who are applying these concepts through their own creative practices. 

In order to fully understand how transmedia entertainment works, students will be expected to immerse themselves in at least one major media franchise for the duration of the term. You should experience as many different instantiations (official and unofficial) of this franchise as you can and try to get an understanding of what each part contributes to the series as a whole. 


§  Andrea Phillips, A Creator’s Guide to Transmedia Storytelling (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2012)

§  Matthew Freeman and Renira Rampazzo Gambarato (eds.) The Routledge Companion to Transmedia Studies (London: Routledge, 2019) (This book is expensive so recommend renting a digital copy at

§  Ann M. Pendelton-Jullian and John Seely Brown, World Building

§  For the color version: $23.00 -

§  For the black and white version: $7.00 - 

All additional readings will be provided through the Blackboard site for the class. 


For the first assignment, you are asked to write a 5-7 page autobiographical essay describing your relationship to a media franchise that you have found to be personally meaningful. You should use this essay to identify the cultural attractors that drew you to this franchise, to discuss which variants of the franchise you experienced, and to describe any cultural activators that encouraged you to more actively contribute to the fan community surrounding this franchise. Be as specific as possible in discussing moments in the transmedia story that were especially important in shaping your engagement with the property. Make explicit reference to ideas about transmedia and engagement from the readings. This assignment is partially about getting to know you as a transmedia participant and partially about getting you to experiment with the critical vocabulary we’ve introduced so far for talking about transmedia experiences. (Due September 10) (10 Percent) 


Write a 5-7-page essay examining one commercially produced story (comic, website, game, mobisode, amusement park attraction, etc.) that acts as an extension of a “core” text (for instance, a television series, film, etc.). You should try to address such issues as its relationship to the story world, its strategies for expanding the narrative, its deployment of the distinctive properties of its platform, its targeted audience, and its cultural attractors/activators. The paper will be evaluated on its demonstrated grasp of core concepts from the class, its original research, and its analysis of how the artifact relates to specific trends impacting the entertainment industry. Where possible, link your analysis to the course materials, including readings, lecture notes, and speaker comments. (30 Percent, October 29) 


Students will be organized into teams, which—for the purpose of this exercise—will function as transmedia companies. You should select a media property (a film, television series, comic book, novel, etc.) that you feel has the potential to become a successful transmedia franchise. In most cases, you will be looking for a property that has not yet added media extensions, though you could also look at a property that you feel has been mishandled in the past. You should have identified and agreed on a property no later than Sept. 12th.  [j2] Each week, a designated member from each team should email a brief summary of your progress to Professor Jenkins and Jesse Tollison. Ideally the report will reflect your thinking around that week’s focus. 

By the end of the term, your team will be “pitching” this property. The pitch should include a briefing book that describes:

1.      the defining properties of the media property

2.      a description of the intended audience(s) and what we know of its potential interests

3.      a discussion of the specific plans for each media platform you are going to deploy

4.      an overall description for how you will seek to integrate the different media platforms to create a coherent world

5.      parallel examples of other properties which have deployed the strategies being described 

For a potential model for what such a book might look like, see the transmedia bible template from Screen Australia, available here: 

Include only those segments of their bible template that make sense for your particular property and approach. You can also get insights on what a bible format might look like from the Andrea Phillips book. 

The pitch itself will be a group presentation, followed by questions from our panel of judges (who will be drawn from across the entertainment industry). The length and format of the presentation will be announced as the term progresses to reflect the number of students actually involved in the process and thus the number of participating teams. The presentation should give us a “taste” of what the property is like, as well as lay out some of the key elements that are identified in the briefing book. Each team will need to determine what the most salient features to cover in their pitches are, as well as what information they want to hold in reserve to address the judge’s questions. Each team member will be expected to develop expertise around a specific media platform, as well as to contribute to the overall strategies for spreading the property across media systems. 

The group will select its own team leader, who will be responsible for contact with the instructor/TA and who will coordinate the presentation. The team leader will be asked to provide feedback on what each team member contributed to the effort, while team members will be asked to provide an evaluation of how the team leader performed. Team members will check in on Week Six, Week Ten and Week Thirteen to review their progress on the assignment.  

Students will pitch their ideas to the panel of judges on December 3. They should expect to receive feedback from the instructor over the following few days, and then turn in the final version of their written documentation on the exam date scheduled for the class. (40 percent) 


For each class session, students will be asked to contribute a substantive question or comment via the class forum on Blackboard. Comments should reflect an understanding of the readings for that day, as well as an attempt to formulate an issue that we can explore with visiting speakers. Students will also be evaluated based on regular attendance and class participation. (20 Percent) 


Tuesday, August 27

Transmedia Storytelling 101 

§  Henry Jenkins, “Searching for the Origami Unicorn: The Matrix and Transmedia Storytelling,” in Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide (New York: New York University Press, 2006), pp. 93-130.

§  Henry Jenkins, “Transmedia Storytelling 202: Further Reflections,” Confessions of an Aca-Fan, August 1, 2011,

§  Elizabeth Evans, “Transmedia Texts: Defining Transmedia Storytelling,” in Transmedia Television: Audiences, New Media, and Daily Life (London: Routledge, 2011), pp. 19-39

§  Andrea Phillips, “What’s Happened to Transmedia?” Immerse

§  Henry Jenkins, “Transmedia What?” Immerse

§  Christy Dena, “Transmedia Performing Badly,” Immerse

§  Caitlin Burn, “Transmedia: Art Forms Created in Real Time,” Immerse 

Guest Speaker: Mike Monello is a true pioneer when it comes to immersive storytelling and innovative marketing. In the late 1990s, Monello and his partners at Haxan Films created The Blair Witch Project, a story told across the burgeoning internet, a sci-fi channel pseudo-documentary, books, comics, games, and a feature film, which became a pop-culture touchstone and inspired legions of “found-footage” movies in its wake. It forever changed how fans engage with story and how marketers approach the internet. Inspired by the possibilities for engaging connected fan cultures and communities online, Monello co-founded Campfire in 2006. There, he leads an agency that has developed and created groundbreaking participatory stories and experiences for HBO, Amazon, Netflix, Cinemax, Discovery, National Geographic, Harley- Davidson, Infiniti, and more. Campfire won Small Agency Campaign of the Year via AdAge in 2013 and Small Agency of the Year via Online Marketing Media and Advertising Awards in 2012, and has been awarded top honors at the Emmys, Cannes Lions Festival, Clios, One Show, and MIXX. Monello serves on the Peabody Awards Board of Jurors, and regularly speaks at high-profile events such as Cannes, Advertising Week, SXSW, and more.


Tuesday,  September 3

A Brief History of Transmedia 

§  Matthew Freeman, “A World of Disney: Building a Transmedia Storyworld for Mickey and His Friends,” in Marta Boni (ed.) Worldbuilding: Transmedia, Fans, Industries (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2017)

§  Justin Wyatt, “Critical Redefinition: The Concept of High Concept,” in High Concept: Movies and Marketing in Hollywood (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1994), pp. 1-22.

§  Jonathan Gray, “Learning to Use the Force: Star Wars Toys and Their Films,” in Show Sold Separately: Promos, Spoilers, and Other Media Paratexts (New York: NYU Press, 2010), pp. 177-187.

 Team Focus: Identifying Your Property 

Guest Speaker: Mark Bartscher is Senior Manager, Games & Interactive, Disney DTCI, Product & Design. He is a digital strategist and executive producer with over 15 years experience developing innovative kids content and products for new media. Working at the cross-section of technology, kids, and storytelling, his passion is to create new ways for kids to engage with the characters and stories they love. His specialties are digital strategy, product development, business development, interactive television, and game design.   


Tuesday, September 10

Producing Transmedia

§  Derek Johnson, “Battleworlds: The Management of Multiplicity in Media Industries,” in Marta Boni (ed.) Worldbuilding: Transmedia, Fans, Industries (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2017).

§  Brian Clark, “Transmedia Business Models,” Confessions of an Aca-Fan, November 7, 2011,,

§  Andrea Phillips, “How to Fund Production Costs,” “And Maybe Make Some Profit, Too,” in A Creator’s Guide to Transmedia Storytelling (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2012), pp. 223-239.

§  Jeff Gomez, “Transmedia Developer: Success at Multiplatform Narrative Requires a Journey to the Heart of the Story”  and Peter von Stackelberg, “Transmedia Franchising: Driving Factors, Storyworld Development and Creative Process” in Routledge Companion  

Team Goal: Finalize property selection 

Guest Speaker: Maureen McHugh’s most recent collection of short stories, After the Apocalypse, was one of Publishers Weekly’s Ten Best Books of 2011.  She has been working in interactive storytelling since 2003 when she was a writer and managing editor for the ARG ilovebees.  She worked on several major interactive projects including Year Zero for Nine Inch Nails.  She’s written interactive narrative for second screen and VR.  She teaches screenwriting and interactive writing at USC.   


Tuesday, September 17

Media Mix

§  Otsuka Eiji, “World and Variation: The Reproduction and Consumption of Narrative,” in Mechademia 5, 2010, pp. 99-116.

§  Ian Condry, “Characters and Worlds as Creative Platforms,” in The Soul of Anime: Collaborative Creativity and Japan’s Media Success Story (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2013).

§  Mizuko Ito, “Gender Dynamics of the Japanese Media Mix,” in Yasmin B. Kafai, Carrie Heeter, Jill Denner, and Jennifer Y. Sun (eds.), Beyond Barbie and Mortal Kombat: New Perspectives on Gender and Gaming (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008), pp. 97-110.

§  Mia Consalvo, “Convergence and Globalization in the Japanese Videogame Industry,” in Cinema Journal, Spring 2009, pp.135-141. 

Team Goal: Discuss business model 

Guest Speakers: Professor Cristina Mejia Visperas examines the intersections of race, state violence, and the life sciences, and whose work is deeply engaged in Visual Culture Studies, Science and Technology Studies, African American Studies, and Disability Studies. She is currently writing a book manuscript on the visual culture of postwar medical science research conducted in prisons.

Prof. Visperas holds a Ph.D. in Communication, Science Studies, from the University of California, San Diego, where she previously taught courses on communication, race, and science and technology, and during which time she was also managing editor of the open-access journal, Catalyst: Feminism, Theory, Technoscience (2014-2016). Prior to becoming a communication scholar, Prof. Visperas had been a laboratory researcher in both academic and industry settings, where the focus of her work had ranged from stems cells and parasitic plants to burn injuries and the biochemistry of membranes. 

Hye Jin Lee is a clinical assistant professor at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. Lee is also the founder and former editor of Books Aren’t Dead, which is a podcast series for Fembot ( that reviews and discusses recent publications by feminist scholars in the field of media, communication, science and technology. Lee holds a Ph.D. in Mass Communication from University of Iowa. At University of Iowa, Lee served as the managing editor of Journal of Communication Inquiry (jci), a peer-reviewed academic journal that focuses on interdisciplinary scholarship in the field of communication and cultural studies. Lee’s primary research focuses on cultural meanings of popular culture and the power struggles (as well as collaborations) between the industry and the fans in the creation of those cultural meanings. Lee’s current research include K-pop industry and global fandom, transformation of cultural meaning, status and content of popular culture when it crosses borders, convergence of social media and television and the gendering of technology.


Tuesday, September 24

Transmedia Logics: Learning, Activism, and Play 

§  Meryl Alper and Becky Herr-Stephenson, “T is for Transmedia,” Joan Ganz Cooney Center and Annenberg Innovation Lab white paper.

§  Henry Jenkins, “Transmedia Logics and Locations,” in Benjamin W. L. Derhy Kurtz and Melanie Bourdaa (eds.) The Rise of Transtexts: Challenges and Opportunities (New York: Routledge, 2016), pp.220-240.

§  Henry Jenkins, Sangita Shresthova, Liana Gamber-Thompson, and Neta Kligler-Vilenchik, "Superpowers to the People!: How Young Activists Are Tapping the Civic Imagination," in Eric Gordon and Paul Mihailidis (eds.) Civic Media: Technology/Design/Practice (Cambridge: MIT Press), pp. 295-320.

§  Donna Hancock, “Transmedia for Social Change: Evolving Approaches to Activism and Representation” and Dan Hassler-Forest, “Transmedia Politics: Star Wars and the Ideological Battlegrounds of Popular Franchises” in Routledge Companion.

Team Goal: Discuss civic imagination goals for project.

Guest Speaker: Dan Goldman is a writer, artist and activist working in graphic novels, animated TV, video games and digital media. Creator of works like critically-acclaimed works like RED LIGHT PROPERTIES, SHOOTING WAR and PRIYA’S SHAKTI, he designs works of mindful entertainment. His next graphic novel CHASING ECHOES--which follows the children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors across rural Poland in search of confiscated family land--will be released in November 2019. He lives in Los Angeles where he runs the Kinjin Story Lab with his partner Liliam. 


Tuesday, October 1 (Henry – Out of Country, class taught by Jesse Tollison)

Transmedia Aesthetics

§  Victor Kaptelinin, “Affordances,” The Encyclopedia of Human Computer Interaction,

§  Dena, Christy. “Beyond Multimedia, Narrative and Game: The Contributions of Multimodality and Polymorphic Fictions.” New Perspectives on Narrative and Multimodality. Ruth Page (ed.). London: Routledge, 2009. 181-201.

§  Gunther Kress

o   “What is a Mode?”

o   “What is multimodality?”

o   “How do people choose between modes?”

 Team Goals: Dig deeper into media mix of property


Tuesday, October 8

Transmedia Engagement 

§  Christy Dena, “Emerging Participatory Culture Practices: Player-Created Tiers in Alternate Reality Games,” Convergence, February 2008, pp. 41-58.

§  Ivan Askwith, “Five Logics of Engagement,” Television 2.0: Reconceptualizing TV as an Engagement Medium, Master’s thesis, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2007, pp. 51-150.

§  Andrea Phillips, “The Four Creative Purposes for Transmedia Storytelling,” “Interactivity Creates Deeper Engagement,” “Uses and Misuses for User-Generated Content,” “Challenging the Audience to Act,” and “Make Your Audience a Character, Too,” in A Creator’s Guide to Transmedia Storytelling (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2012), pp.  41-54, 110-126,  137-148, 149-182.

§  Paul Booth, “Transmedia Fandom and Participation: The Nuances and Contours of Fannish Participation” in Routledge Companion.  

Team Goal: Strategies for audience engagement

Ivan Askwith is a cultural strategist and producer, specializing in experience design for digital platforms and fan communities. He has been named one of Fast Company’s “100 Most Creative People in Business” for “knowing how to get fans more of what they want," and described by Wired as “the secret weapon” behind entertainment's biggest crowdfunding successes, where he has raised over $20,000,000 through record-breaking crowdfunding campaigns for Veronica MarsReading RainbowSuper Troopers 2Mystery Science Theater 3000 and The Aquabats

Askwith is also an Executive Producer for Amazon's upcoming animated transmedia series Do, Re & Mi (2020), which aims to help pre-school listeners develop a lifelong passion for music. Previously, Askwith spent several years leading the Digital Media division of Lucasfilm, and several more leading the Strategy group at Big Spaceship, an award-winning digital agency. He was also a founding member of MIT's Convergence Culture Consortium (C3), where he worked with Professor. Henry Jenkins to develop a new model for understanding fan behaviors and motives when engaging with popular culture. 

Rebekah McKendry is a professor at the University of Southern California in the Cinematic Arts Department. She is also an award-winning filmmaker with a strong focus in the horror and science fiction genres. She has a doctorate focused in Media Studies focused on the Horror Genre from Virginia Commonwealth University, a MA in Film Studies focused in Cult Media from City University of New York, and a second MA from Virginia Tech in Arts Education. Rebekah previously has worked as the Editor-in-chief at Blumhouse Productions and as the Director of Marketing for Fangoria Entertainment. She is also a co-host of Blumhouse’s Shock Waves Podcast and founder of the Stephanie Rothman Fellowship for Female Film Students. 


Tuesday,  October 15

World Building Part 1

 §  Henry Jenkins, “The Pleasure of Pirates and What It Tells Us about World Building in Branded Entertainment”, Confessions of an Aca-Fan, June 13, 2007

§  John Seeley Brown and Ann Pendleton-Jullian, World-Building 

Team Goal: World Building Workshop 

Professor Ann Pendleton-Jullian is an architect, writer, and educator whose work explores the interchange between culture, environment, and technology.

From a first short career in astrophysics, Professor Pendleton-Jullian has come to see the world through a lens of complexity framed by principles from ecology theory. This, in tandem with a belief that design has the power to take on the complex challenges associated with an emergent highly networked global culture has led her to work on architecture projects that range in scale and scope from things to systems of action - from a house for the astronomer Carl Sagan, to a seven village ecosystem for craft-based tourism in Guizhou province, China - and in domains outside of architecture including patient centered health, new innovation models for K-12 and higher ed, and human and economic development in marginalized populations.

Prior to the Knowlton School she was a tenured professor at MIT for fourteen years. She is also a core member of a cross-disciplinary network of global leaders established by the Secretary of Defense to examine questions of emerging interest.

As a writer, she has most recently finished a manuscript Design Unbound, with co-author John Seely Brown, that presents a new tool set for designing within complex systems and on complex problems endemic to the 21st century. Worldbuilding is one of the most powerful tools within that tool set and has been used in various diverse real world settings, as she will discuss.


Tuesday October 22

World Building Part 2

§  Geoffrey Long, “Creating Worlds into Which to Play: Using Transmedia Aesthetics to Grow Stories into Storyworlds,” in Benjamin W.L. Derhy Kurtz and Mélanie Bourdaa (Eds.) Rise of the Transtexts: Challenges and Opportunities (New York: Routledge, 2016),  pp.139-152.

§  Henry Jenkins, “‘All Over the Map’: Building (and Rebuilding) Oz,” Film and Media Studies: Scientific Journal of Sapientia University, 9, 2014, 7-29.

§  Henry Jenkins, “Matter, Dark Matter, Doesn’t Matter’: An Interview with Lost in Oz’s  Bureau of Magic

§  Mark J. P. Wolf, “Transmedia World-Building: History, Conception, and Construction” in Routledge Companion.

 Team Goal: Focus on World-Building 

Guest Speaker: Danny Bilson is a writer, producer, director and game designer. He is currently Chair of the Interactive Media and Games Division of the School of  Cinematic Arts and Director of USC Games.  In Television, Bilson created and Executive Produced The Flash, The Human Target, The Sentinel and Viper.  He wrote Disney’s The Rocketeer as well as the upcoming Spike Lee Joint Da 5 Bloods, to be released in 2020.  As a senior executive in the game industry Bilson shepherded the Harry Potter, James Bond and Medal of Honor Franchises for Electronic Arts, as well as Saint’s Row, Space Marine, and Red Faction at THQ. He was also a producer on the original “The Sims”, helping to launch that multi-billion dollar franchise. Danny also contributed designs, concepts, and helped prototype Disney’s Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge. Danny Bilson  has experience developing properties in film, video games, television, theme parks and comic books.


Tuesday, October 29

Immersion and Extractability 

§  Henry Jenkins, “He-Man and Masters of Transmedia,” Confessions of an Aca-Fan, May 21, 2010,

§  Henry Jenkins, “Harry Potter: The Exhibition, or What Location Entertainment Adds to a Transmedia Franchise,” Confessions of an Aca-Fan, December 14 2009.

§  Mark J. P. Wolf, “Immersion, Absorption and Saturation,” in Building Imaginary Worlds: The Theory and History of Subcreation (New York: Routledge, 2012), pp.48-51.

§  Andrea Phillips, “Bringing Your Story Into the Real World,” in A Creator’s Guide to Transmedia Storytelling (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2012), pp. 209-222.

§  Matthew Freeman, “Transmedia Attractions: The Case of Warner Bros. Studio Tour -- The Making of Harry Potter” and Anne Kerchy, “Transmedia Commodification: Disneyfication, Magical Objects and Beauty and the Beast,” in Routledge Companion 

Team Goal: Merch strategies

Guest Speaker: Ivan Lopez is the General Manager of Accelerators for Techstars across the Americas West region. He has over 25 years of global executive leadership experience in business development, marketing and technology. Ivan led teams in mobile technology, fiber optics, cloud services, e-commerce, video streaming, IP licensing, gaming, SaaS, procurement, media and entertainment in North and South America, Europe and Asia Pacific. Prior to joining Techstars Ivan built the strategic partners business for Merch by Amazon creating the largest merchandise print on demand business worldwide working with over 400 major brand partners ranging from YouTube celebrities to The Walt Disney Company In this role he also launched "Merch Collab" which established a global marketplace for fan art with brand creative approval and monetization for both fan designer and brand, a first in the industry. Equally, he advises international talent and celebrities on brand creation across multiple categories that are aligned with their values and personal mission. Ivan holds a degree in Telecommunications Engineering and has completed the Harvard Law School Program on Negotiation (PON) executive training.


Tuesday,  November 5

Seriality and Complexity 

§  Jason Mittell, “Transmedia Storytelling,” Complex Television

§  Mark J. P. Wolf, “More Than a Story: Narrative Threads and Narrative Fabric,” in Building Imaginary Worlds: The Theory and History of Subcreation (London: Routledge, 2013) pp. 198-225.

§  Andrea Phillips, “Conveying Action Across Multiple Media,” in A Creator’s Guide to Transmedia Storytelling (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2012), pp.  93-102.

§  Frank Kelleter, “Five Ways of Looking at Popular Seriality,” in Media of Serial Narrative (Ohio State University Press, 2017), pp.7-36. 

Team Goal: Segmentation and Story Flow  

Though best known as one of the Emmy Award-Winning Producer/Writers of Lost, and for creating the “The Middleman” graphic novels and television series, Javier “Javi” Grillo-Marxuach is a prolific creator of television, film, comics, essays, and trans-media content. Between 2019 and 2020, Javi will have written and produced shows as varied as The Jim Henson Company’s production of The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance, and Cowboy Bebop - both for Netflix - as well as the CBS summer series Blood and Treasure, while developing his original pilot Skyborn with Bad Wolf and The Jim Henson Company for UCP. Javi is also co-host and co-creator (with fellow writer/producer/Puerto Rican, Jose Molina) of the Children of Tendu podcast, an educational series which aims to teach newcomers how to navigate the entertainment industry with decency and integrity. Javier Grillo-Marxuach was born in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Spanish is his native language, and his name is pronounced "HA-VEE-AIR GREE-JOE MARKS-WATCH". 


Tuesday,  November 12

Continuity and Multiplicity 

§  William Uricchio and Roberta E. Pearson, “I’m Not Fooled by That Cheap Disguise,” in Roberta E. Pearson and William Uricchio (eds.), The Many Lives of the Batman: Critical Approaches to A Superhero and His Media (New York: Routledge, 1991), pp. 182-213.

§  Sam Ford and Henry Jenkins, “Managing Multiplicity in Superhero Comics,” in Pat Harrigan and Noah Wardrip-Fruin (eds.), Third Person: Authoring and Exploring Vast Narratives (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009), pp. 303-313.

§  Shawna Kidman, “Five Lessons For New Media From the History of Comics Culture,” in International Journal of Learning and Media 3.4 (2012): 41-54.

§  William Proctor, “Transmedia Comics: Seriality, Sequentiality, and the Shifting Economics of Franchise Licensing” in Routledge Companion 

Team Goal: Focus on time table 


Tuesday, November 19

Subjectivity And Performance 

§  Andrea Phillips, “Online, Everything is Characterization,” in A Creator’s Guide to Transmedia Storytelling (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2012), pp. 83-92.

§  Sam Ford, “WWE’s Storyworld and the Immersive Potentials of Transmedia Storytelling,” in Benjamin W.L. Derhy Kurtz and Mélanie Bourdaa (Eds.) Rise of the Transtexts: Challenges and Opportunities (New York: Routledge, 2016),  pp.169-186.

§  Roberta Pearson, “Transmedia Characters: Additionality and Cohesion in Transfictional Heroes” in Routledge Companion

§  Matthew Weise and Henry Jenkins, “Short Controlled Bursts: Affect and Aliens,” in Cinema Journal, Spring 2009, pp.111-116. 


Tuesday, November 26 - Teams work on Final Presentations


Tuesday, December 3 (LAST DAY OF CLASS) - Final Presentations