Capitalism and Cartoons: An Interview with Ragmop’s Rob Walton (Part Two)

Yesterday, I began the first of a two part interview with Rob Walton, creator of the recently completed graphic novel, Ragmop. Greg Smith, whose research interest extend from cognitive theory of emotion to the translation of The Maxx for television, conducted this interview. Smith is the author of a great forthcoming book on Ally McBeal and the aesthetics of serial television, which is coming out later this year. Yesterday, Smith and Walton took us deep into the political and economic theories behind the book. Today, they explore some of the influences — from Samuel Beckett to Jack Kirby — that shaped this idiosyncratic story.

Many of you, of course, live in areas where the comic book shops are sub par and don’t stock Walton’s Ragmop. I should note that the book is of course also available from Amazon and other online bookdealers.

Lest people think that Ragmop is an economic treatise, we should point out that it’s incredibly funny too. The rhythm of the jokes feels a lot like the jokes in classic animation. What did you learn about joke structure from animation?

Drawing storyboards for ten years definitely helped refine my comic timing as well as what I absorbed as a kid watching Monty Python, Bugs Bunny, the Marx Brothers, and reading MAD Magazine. Animation also taught me how to use “beats”. Those are moments of silence when a character suddenly clues into something, like when the Tetragrammaton realizes that there are dinosaurs in Heaven (page 241) or Alice’s spit-take on page 178 (you don’t see too many spit-takes in comics, do you?). Ragmop appropriates all of this material, which originates for our purposes with Vaudeville and Silent Film comedy. It was amazing to be able to distill eighty years of comedy culture in a comic like Ragmop. I don’t think it could have been done any other way. It was a cartoon comedy or nothing. I was dealing with such grand themes and extreme viewpoints that it never once occurred to me that this would be anything other than a comedy.

Aside from animation I did read up on the history of comedy going back to the Greeks. I was happy to learn that what I was doing in Ragmop was nothing more than what was done at the original festivals, where ancient comedians would parody and lampoon the figures of establishment in their day. That’s where comedy seemed to begin. It’s also why it has always been reviled and suppressed over the centuries by the various targets of its humor.

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Capitalism and Cartoons: An Interview with Ragmop’s Rob Walton (Part One)

Today’s interview with comics creator Rob Walton was conducted by my good friend, Greg M. Smith, who teaches media studies at my undergraduate home, Georgia State University. Whenever I come to Atlanta to visit my family, I make a point to get together with Greg, who takes me to the local comic shops and shows me what I have been missing all of these years. He’s introduced me to a broad range of books that had otherwise slipped my grasp but one of the best was Ragmop. When Smith learned that the long unfinished Ragmop was going to be completed and reprinted as a graphic novel, he asked if I’d be willing to let him interview Rob Walton for my blog. What could I say? Wild Horses couldn’t stop him and in any case, I was as excited as he was at helping to introduce my readers to this fascinating book. Everything from here is Greg’s.

Ragmop was one of the great unfinished comic stories until recently, when creator Rob Walton completed and published his 450 page graphic novel. Picture the love child of comic book great Jack Kirby and economist Adam Smith, all done as a Looney Tunes cartoon. Or maybe the best story of an interstellar conspiracy ever done by ALL the Marx brothers (Groucho, Harpo, Chico, Zeppo, AND Karl).

Ragmop is the story of the chaotic pursuit of the “O-Ring,” an emblem of power that keeps the current pretender to divinity named Tetragrammaton (you know him as “God”) in heaven. Everyone wants the O-Ring: the American government (where an idiotic president is under the sway of the evil Mr. Black), insane lobotomizing psychologists, former Nazis, beatnik poet/physicists, the Pope and his cabal of assassin cardinals, an alien race known as the Draco (based on real life aliens!), and even Uncle Walt (yes, THAT Walt). Most importantly, our heroine Alice Hawkings (after her unsuccessful career as the super-villain Thrill Kitten) and her three dinosaur sidekicks (Darwin, Einstein, and Huxley) are also in pursuit, with the fate of the world in the balance.

Ragmop mixes pratfalls and economic theory in a way that is utterly distinctive to comics. Rob Walton can be reached at robwaltoon@sympatico.ca, or at his blog. Ragmop can be purchased at finer comic shops everywhere.

Tell us about the publishing history of Ragmop.

Ragmop began as a serialized comic back in June of 1995 published by my own imprint Planet Lucy Press. That lasted ten issues before moving over to Image Comics for two issues. The second issue could not carry the sales needed for it to remain with Image, so I published a final issue before abandoning the series to return to animation full time sometime in 1998.

Over the years people kept asking me when I would finish the book. I told them I had no plans to return to the material, especially since the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Too much had changed on the political scene, and I felt the story would have to be completely updated to reflect the new realities of the War on Terror. Then came a bout of underemployment in 2004-2005. To fill the gap I began to pick away at Ragmop trying to find a new way back into the story.

I had reread the published issues and had a good idea of what worked and what didn’t. I knew I needed a new opening, something that would plunge the reader right into the action. I also wanted to introduce the political angle immediately as a way of being honest and upfront with the reader. I also knew I wanted to incorporate and expand upon the “Plunder Blunder” backup story from issue six that told us a little of Alice’s past criminal activity as a way of better establishing her as the main character of the story. This process alone took four to six months to resolve. My first pass at this material was modeled on the narrative structure of Rocky & Bullwinkle with a lot of stops and starts in the story as well as having a “voice over” narrator. Those who read that first version didn’t like it at all. Thankfully they were right and that I had the good sense to trust their judgment. I excised the Rocky & Bullwinkle shtik and found myself off to the races.

Updating the script turned out to be a fun exercise and gave me a chance to correct a lot of the art and story. It took me a further year to complete the final edits and new pages required to bring the story to its soul-shattering conclusion. Having it complete in one volume I can finally appreciate the accomplishment. I think I did exactly what I wanted to do even if it falls short of some people’s expectations. I’m personally proud of the book.

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The Escasy of Influence and the Power of Networks

Today, I want to call to your attention two recent articles which speak to themes that have been recurring interests in this blog since we launched last June — the first deals with the relationship of intellectual property and creative expression, the second deals with web comics as a site of experimentation and innovation. Both warrant closer looks.

Jonathon Lethem , an author whose fiction consistently plays around with themes of fandom and popular culture, has published a provocative essay, “The Ecstasy of Influence,” in the most recent issue of Harpers, which explores the ways that copyright has operated to constrain and plagiarism and appropriation to expand the richness of our culture. Lethem’s statement is impossible to summarize here because it expresses its ideas as much through its form (composed of remixing a range of writers who have dealt with the contemporary debates about copyright, including Lawrence Lessig, Siva Vaidhyanathan, Richard Posner, Lewis Hyde, David Foster Wallace, and Henry Jenkins).

Something of the piece’s argument can be determined by its opening quote from John Donne:

“All mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated.”

For those who are curious, Lethem mashes up a passage from Textual Poachers with the Michel DeCerteau’s The Practice of Everyday Life, the book which provided me with my theoretical underpinnings:

Active reading is an impertinent raid on the literary preserve. Readers are like nomads, poaching their way across fields they do not own–artists are no more able to control the imaginations of their audiences than the culture industry is able to control second uses of its artifacts. In the children’s classic The Velveteen Rabbit, the old Skin Horse offers the Rabbit a lecture on the practice of textual poaching. The value of a new toy lies not it its material qualities (not “having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle”), the Skin Horse explains, but rather in how the toy is used. “Real isn’t how you are made. . . . It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.” The Rabbit is fearful, recognizing that consumer goods don’t become “real” without being actively reworked: “Does it hurt?” Reassuring him, the Skin Horse says: “It doesn’t happen all at once. . . . You become. It takes a long time. . . . Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby.” Seen from the perspective of the toymaker, the Velveteen Rabbit’s loose joints and missing eyes represent vandalism, signs of misuse and rough treatment; for others, these are marks of its loving use.

As a fan of Lethem’s fiction (The Fortress of Solitude), I am tickled pink to see my own writing included in this context. Every so often, journalists, who see me as an advocate of very loose copyright protection, ask me how I would feel if someone took and used my work without my permission as if it were a kind of gotcha question. In reality, I am delighted to see people engage with my ideas; I give much of my own intellectual property away on a daily basis — here in the blog and elsewhere — because I care much more about having an impact on the debates that impact our culture and in providing resources for my readers than I am interested in regulating what they do with my text. Of course, it is nice when they acknowledge that I wrote the material, as Lethem does here, but I also understand as the quote from Donne suggests that new works get built on the shucks of old works and that to be part of the conversation is to become the raw materials out of which new texts get generated or perhaps simply the compost that allows them to grow.

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Singapore-MIT Games Innovation Lab in the News

Chris Kohler ran a story in Wired last week about new academic programs in game studies and design, in which the new Singapore-MIT GAMBIT games innovation lab figured prominently, alongside the new Serious Games masters program being launched by Carrie Heeter at Michigan State University and the new bachelor’s degree program in game art and design recently launched by the Expression College for Digital Arts in Emeryville, California. These are to be sure only a few of a much broader array of colleges and universities which currently offer degrees or research opportunities in the area of game studies and design, each with their own strengths and emphasis. Certainly I would want to acknowledge here the pioneering work in this area at the University of Southern California, Georgia Institute of Technology, and Carnegie Mellon University, to cite simply the American institutions.

Kohler bases his representation of our efforts primarily on an interview he conducted with core participants some months ago. He recently reprinted the full transcript of the exchange via his blog and I am crossposting it here with his permission in hopes that it will give my regular readers a clearer picture of what we are trying to accomplish.

Kohler was flattering in his representation of “Prof. Jenkins” (that guy again!) as the key figure behind the project but in fairness, I should stress the degree to which CMS co-director William Uricchio has been the primary player in our negotiation to create the lab and that the day to day operations of the lab are being capably overseen at this point by CMS alum Philip Tan, who has been seconded to our team from the Singapore Media Development Authority. Both Tan and Uricchio play a prominent role in the interview which follows.

We got some thorough ribbing in the fall when we announced that the Lab would be called SMIGIL (Singapore International Games Innovation Lab) and I joked at Serious Games that we were going to change our name to GOLLUM (Games — Online Learning, Large, Utterly Massive). In the end, we have settled for GAMBIT (Gamers, Aesthetics, Mechanics, Business, Innovation, and Technology). While we are still negotiating some final details of the arrangement, we remain optimistic that the lab will launch this summer with our first crop of games prototypes starting to surface in the fall. My trip to Singapore in January was partially focused on identifying collaborators at leading Singaporean institutions who would be working with us on the first round of research.

Chris Kohler: You’ve been on the front lines of research into video games for quite a long time, but if I understand correctly this is the first big push for CMS into actual work in video game design. Why get into this area of education?

Henry Jenkins: That’s a bit of a simplification. I have long been a strong advocate of innovation, creativity, and diversity of games as well as a strong supporter of the serious and independent games movements. That’s probably the part of my work which has been most visible beyond the MIT campus. But, we have been taking steady steps over the past eight or nine years through the Comparative Media Studies Program to move decisively towards games production. The Comparative Media Studies has embraced an ethos of applied humanities.

Some years ago, CMS collaborated with Bing Gordon to develop a Creative Leaders Program for Electronic Arts: our faculty and students sat down to brainstorm with key EA designers, including Will Wright, Neil Young, and Danny Bilson, about the future of the games medium. For the past seven years, we have run a week-long intensive games design workshop every January in collaboration with people in the training program at Sony Imageworks and with a range of local Boston area games companies. Our students conceptualize and pitch games in the course of the week and receive feedback from industry insiders (representing companies such as Harmonix, Mad Doc, and Turbine). We have gradually built on that foundation by having games-related courses taught on campus by games industry insiders, such as Christopher Weaver (Bethesda Softworks), Ian Lane Davis (Mad Doc), Eric Zimmerman (GameLab) and Frank Espinoza (Warner Brothers). We have a long tradition of bringing games industry professionals to MIT to mentor and advise students on their class projects. We have long brought game designers of all kinds to campus to interact with our students

and share with them front line perspectives on industry trends. We have had a steady stream of students who have sought to combine computer science and comparative media studies and have gone on to do internships and get jobs as game designers.

We have now six years of track record doing conceptual and playable prototypes for educational games — starting with the Games to Teach project which was funded by Microsoft Research and then the Education Arcade, which has hosted major events on games and learning at E3. This group has experimented with the use of game mods as a platform for developing educational games, transforming Neverwinter Nights into Revolution, a game set in Colonial Williamsburg. We recently hired Scot Osterweil (The Zoombini’s Logical Adventure) to head up a team of our students working with Maryland Public Television and Fablevision to develop Labyrinth, a multiplatform experience designed to help kids develop literacy and math skills. It will be, we hope, the first CMS developed game to find its way into distribution. Eric Klopfer, another colleague, has been a leading researcher working on Augmented Reality Games and Beth Coleman, yet another colleague, is doing important work on the use of machinema for artistic expression.

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Millenial Monsters: An Interview with Anne Allison (Part Two)

Yesterday, I ran the first part of an interview with Duke professor Anne Allison talking about her recent book, Millenial Monsters: Japanese Toys and the Global Imagination. Today, I continue that interview.

I mentioned last time that I spoke on a panel with Allison at Duke and thought I’d share a few more aspects of my interest in this area.

For one thing, the New Media Literacies project is currently working on a documentary about the cosplay community: our team went to Ohayocon this January to do interviews with anime fans and the costuming community. I wasn’t able to share that footage at Duke but I was able to share some footage that a recent CMS alum, Vanessa Bertozzi, had produced of a young woman named Chloe who described the ways that cosplay and her fascination with JPop and anime motivated her to learn more about the Japanese culture and language:

“I have been really interested in Japanese culture since I was in sixth grade. When I was in the seventh grade, I started studying Japanese on my own. When I got into high school, I started taking Japanese courses at Smith College. I got into costuming through anime which is actually how I got interested in Japanese. And I taught myself how to sew. …I’m a stage hog. I like to get attention and recognition. I love acting and theater. The biggest payoff of cosplay is to go to the conventions where there are other people who know who you are dressed as and can appreciate your effort. At the first convention I ever went to, I must have had fifty people take my picture and at least ten of them came up and hugged me. It’s almost like whoever you dress up as, you become that person for a day….People put the pictures up on their websites after the con. So after a con, you can search for pictures of yourself and if you are lucky, you will find five or ten. ”

Chloe is representative of what I have called “pop cosmopolitanism.” I have mentioned this concept in the blog before and wrote about it extensively in an essay that is found in Fans, Gamers, and Bloggers. She has attached herself to Japanese popular culture as a way to escape the paroachialism of contemporary American culture — to find a world outside or beyond the American borders. And in doing so, she has moved from a fantasy version of Japanese culture towards closer engagement with Japanese fans via the internet and with Japanese language and culture through her courses at Smith College.

I also shared with the group some sense of the ways that the American comics industry has started to absorb influences from manga in the hopes of combatting a trend which finds Japanese comics outselling American comics by as much as four to one in the U.S. market, perhaps the only internationally produced media content that outsells its domestic counterpart in this country. I showed how companies like Marvel and DC had sought to absorb elements of the themes and style of Manga while attaching them to their flagship superhero characters with the greatest emphasis occuring in works that target female consumers. See for example the romance comic, Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane, for a comic that deals with classic Marvel superhero themes in a manga style. Indeed, this turn towards manga style in both mainstream and indie comics is starting to open up a space for female writers and artists as well. A curiosity in this case is the link between manga and female readers/writers given that the Japanese comics being imitated here are not always or even primarily those aimed at female readers in Japan. Lots more here to reflect upon in the future, that’s for sure.

I also suggested that this was an international phenomenon, citing as an example The Mammoth Book of Best New Manga , a British anthology that I picked up in Singapore. The editors struggled in their introduction to justify the use of “manga” to characterize a collection of works by a global set of contributors, including some very interesting work Asia Alfasi (Libyan by birth, Scottish by residence), who uses a manga style to tell the story of a hijab-wearing Arab Muslim girl living in the United Kingdom. The book represents one of a number of recent efforts to strip the term, “manga,” of its specific reference to Japan and argue that “manga” refers to a specific set of styles and genres in comics that travel freely across national borders in an increasingly global marketplace of ideas and influences. On the one hand, this book suggests the world-wide influence of Japanese media and at the same time, it suggest ways that media producers in other countries are learning to attach themselves to this phenomenon to open up the western market to their own cultural products. A core question at the present time is whether “Cool Japan” is an unique phenomenon or whether we will see more and more national cultures attract their own passionate groups of young fans in the west.

Now, back to the interview…

In the book, you draw on the concept of de-odorization to talk about the ways cultural materials are stripped of their local specificity as they enter the local markets. Yet at this point, Japanese culture carries enough cache that it’s styles and themes are actively being imitated by American companies. Do you see this as a shift in the strategies by which Japanese cultural goods are being marketed?

Yes, and it represents a change coming from both Japan and the US. Until about the early 1990s, cultural products from Japan that bore the trace of their cultural roots too strongly simply didn’t sell very well abroad. Given this, companies like Sony purposely tried to make “global” versus “Japanese” products (Sony itself was a name chosen for its global-cachet and its electronics were colored gray with an aesthetic style meant to be modern and international rather than Japanese per se). For the past decade or even a bit longer, however, there has been a global fad for Japanese products that has now come to value, even fetishize, their “Japaneseness.” A Saban executive told me that when Power Rangers came out in 1993, the show had to be Americanized and its Japanese roots heavily censored. However, by 2002 (when I was talking with him), showing Japanese script, riceballs, or temples in a Japanese cartoon was an added attraction and not only was it not airbrushed out, such signs of Asianness were now being actively solicited.

In your book, you write, “the quest is not so much for the authentic Japan but for what ‘made-in-Japan’ authenticates — a leading brand name of coolness these days.” Explain. What qualities do you think American young people associate with Japan? What fantasies are served by their quest of Japanese cultural goods?

What I think Japan authenticates in the minds, fantasies, and tastes of US fans of J-cool is not so much Japan as a real place as mush as a particular aesthetic. I characterize this aesthetic in my book by the qualities of polymorphous perversity ( a continual moving of borders,constant transformation, repetitive change and accretion of powers, body-parts, and mecha) and techno-animism ( a world that gets animated by technology and human bodies that, in this animation, also become cyborgs). Godzilla embodied these two qualities and arose in Japan at a moment of historical disrupture and postwar reconstruction. My argument is that–in part because of Japan’s wartime and postwar history–it bred a fantasy culture more dependent on polymorphous perversity and techno-animism than was American pop culture at the time. Now, the US is less stable, complacent, and economically secure than it was in the 1950s and itself is experiencing some of the social and political tensions Japan was in the 1950s. Also this is a moment of heightened flux, migration, change, and mobility around the world; these social conditions breed and embrace the cultural tropes so rampant in J-cool and this is what the “Japan” of J-cool represents for American fans, I argue.

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Millennial Monsters: An Interview with Anne Allison (Part One)

In January, as part of my three week lecture tour, I stopped off in Durham, North Carolina where Duke University was hosting a special event designed to discuss the issues being raised by Millennial Monsters: Japanese Toys and the Global Imagination, which was written by one of their faculty members, Anne Allison. I was one of several outside researchers who shared their insights into the issues the book raised. I had a great time interacting with the students and faculty there both through this event and a seminar session the following day.

I have long been an admirer of Anne Allison’s work which touches in complex ways on issues of globalization, cultural identity, fan cultures, sexuality, and popular culture. For me, one of the real values of her work is that she has read deeply into what Japanese cultural critics have had to say about some of the materials that have made their way over to this country. Given how little of this writing has been translated into English, this is an especially valuable service to those of us interested in this topic. The book offers a richly detailed series of case studies of the interplay of Japanese and American popular culture, going back to the tin toys produced during the American occupation, Godzilla and Astro Boy, and other early texts which made it into the western marketplace. The core of the book describes the emergence of an ethos of “coolness” around Japanese cultural imports — moving from a time when the industry sought to erase markers of cultural difference to the present moment when many western consumers are embracing these products (toys, anime, manga, games) because of their Japaneseness.

Today and tomorrow, I will be sharing with you an interview with Anne Allison about her latest project. Here’s her official biography which will provide some background about who she is and how this project fits into the larger trajectory of her career:

Anne Allison is a cultural anthropologist currently working on the globalization of Japanese pop culture in entertainment goods like Pokemon. Her recent book, Millennial Monsters: Japanese Toys and the Global Imagination (University of California Press, 2006) looks at the global marketplace, capitalist logic, and fantasy construction of Japanese toys through the lens of Japan-US relations. Allison has published two previous books. The first, Nightwork: Sexuality, Pleasure, and Corporate Masculinity in a Tokyo Hostess Club (University of Chicago Press 1994) is a study of the Japanese corporate practice of entertaining white collar, male workers in the sexualized atmosphere of hostess clubs. Her second book, Permitted and Prohibited Desires: Mothers, Comics, and Censorship in Japan (Westview-HarperCollins 1996, re-released by University of California Press 2000) examines the intersection of motherhood, productivity, and mass-produced fantasies in contemporary Japan through essays on lunch-boxes, comics, censorship, and stories of mother-son incest. Anne Allison is Chair and Robert O. Keohane Professor of the Department of Cultural Anthropology at Duke University.

Let’s start where your book ends. You write, “Finally, of course, there is the significance and signification of Japan in the creation of a global imagination no longer dominated (or at least not so completely) by the United States. The attractive power at work here may be less for a real place than for the sense of displacement enjoined by the postindustrial condition of travel, nomadicism, and flux generated and signified here by somewhere “not-the-United-states” but within the orbit of the globally familiar. Still, American hegemony is being challenged in the symbolic virtual medium of fantasy making. And in this a see a positive contribution to the cultural politics of global imaginings in millennial monsters and Japanese toys.” Explain. In what sense is it more important that this is not American popular culture than that it is culture from Japan? Or conversely, why does it matter that American youth are consuming culture produced elsewhere? What do you see as the political, cultural, and economic implications of this shift?

It’s always struck me that Americans are very insular; we tend to see America as the center of the world, American culture as the global standard and norm, and the American lifestyle as the best in the world. Much of this is unconscious and comes from, among other things, a popular culture so dominated by US-produced fare. So, to disturb this sense of American-centeredness and to open up Americans to understanding and recognizing cultural difference is good, I’d say. Of course the question then is: does the popularization of J-cool amongst American youth really signal an opening up of consciousness and sensitivity to cultures and a cultural way of life that is different? I would say – to a degree, yes. But what matters here is not that fans of J-cool necessarily understand the complexity of “Japan” as the origins of this different popular culture. Rather, what is important here is more the disruption of the dominance of American culture. This is the cultural implication of a shift in pop culture in the US.

But you also ask about the political and economic implications and this is a harder question to answer. Economically, Japan is as much a postindustrial, neoliberal economy as the US so I’m not sure there is a radical shift here in the wave of J-cool spreading across the US. Politically, we could say there is more possible significance: the acceptance of soft power from somewhere else implies a challenge (well, a “soft” challenge)to the unilateralism of the US empire and the way the US nation-state is imposing its will and policies on the global stage (invasion of Iraq) without consulting or cooperating with others.

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When Piracy Becomes Promotion Revisted…

Last fall, Reason magazine reprinted the “When Piracy Becomes Promotion” section from Convergence Culture, foregrounding the ways that the arguably illegal practices of fan subbing have helped to build the American market for anime.

More recently, I received a tip from reader David Mankins about the ways that the commercial marketing for the anime series, The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, sought to explicitly tap into the fansubbing circuit. Haruhi had been a huge success in Japan and had generated growing interest in the American Otaku community through its circulation in fansubbed versions. Wikipedia offers this history of the international reception of the series:

DVD sales in Japan have been strong with 70,000 and 90,000 units sold of the first two DVDs respectively as of August 2006. A 2006 online poll of Japan’s top 100 favourite animated television series of all time, conducted by TV Asahi, placed the series in fourth place. The series has also become somewhat of an internet phenomenon in both Japan and English-speaking countries thanks to the distribution of English language fansubs, and over 2000 clips of the series and user-created parodies and homages were posted to video sharing websites such as YouTube. The popularity of these clips (and those of other popular Japanese series) lead the Japanese Society for Rights of Authors, Composers and Publishers (JASRAC) to request that YouTube remove clips protected under copyright.

Rather than ignore this history, the company releasing the anime series officially in the United States openly courted anime fans, urging those who have loved the fan sub version to support the commercial releases.

Here’s an account of the campaign published last December on The Anime Almanac:

Buzz was generating through out all off last week as a mysterious website popped onto the internets with promises of the popular anime series, The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, being licensed in the US. The website only claimed that “The World as we know it will end” that Friday. But for those looking around, one could find hidden messages to decrypt written in the website’s source code. The popular website AnimeOnDVD.com also played along with the highlight of the letters SOS written on their news posts. The hype was big, and many started to speculate who was behind the mystery….

Bandai’s idea behind the ASOS Brigade is to reach out to everyone who has already become fans of the series through watching the fansubs. They have created their own amateur-style home movies and are posting them on the internet. They have also created a Myspace page and encourage fans.

The movie is done “for fans by fans” style, and they really know their target audience. The movie interlaces Japanese and English dialog with a Korean-Americain, former Pink Ranger Patricia Ja Lee, playing the lead role, and two Japanese actresses playing her sidekicks. Lee even admits in the film that the Japanese actresses are only meant to appeal to the otaku fanboys. This is a very suitable attitude for the character she portrays, and is even more entertaining when we, the otaku-fanboy audience, realize how true it is.

But the video also dives into other aspects of the online anime community that we weren’t expecting from a company like Bandai. Internet catch-phrases like “O Rly?” and “No Wai!” are used through out the video, which are only used by visitors of such otaku-influenced websites like 4chan.org and ytmnd.com. Also, after fans complained over Lee’s choice to translate a word to “psychic” over the word “esper”, a new subtitled version of the video included the fan-prefered word written under the original recording…

Many people feel that Haruhi will never sell well in the US because most of the fans have already seen the show through illegal methods. This campaign is an attempt to target the fansub community into actually supporting the series financially when the opportunity is available to them. The movie ends with special thanks to “All fansubs lovers who buy the official DVDs and who help support more creative works,” and specifically gives no thanks to “downloaders/bootlegers who never buy the official DVDs.” This is a very bold statement, but I completely understand where they are coming from.

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Four Eyed Monsters and Collaborative Curation

Attend the tale of plucky young independent filmmakers Susan Buice and Arin Crumley who have tapped every device available to them in the era of participatory culture to get their feature film, Four Eyed Monsters in front of an audience.

Rather than waiting for the film to come out on DVD to offer director’s extras, Buice and Crumley shot a compelling series of videos about the film’s production and released them via iTunes, MySpace, and YouTube, where as of August 2006 they had been downloaded more than 600,000 times. As audience interest in the property grew, the team used their own blog/website to solicit support from their fans, promising that they would insure that the film got shown in any city where there were more than 150 requests. Indeed, they were able to use the online interest expressed in the film to court local exhibitors and convince them that there was an audience for Four Eyed Monsters in their community.

As Crumley explained in an interview with Indiewire:

Most theaters would normally avoid a project like ours because we don’t have a distributor who would be marketing the film and getting people to show up. But because the audience of our video podcast is so enthusiastic about the project and because we have numbers and emails and zip codes for all of these people, we’ve been able to instill enough confidence in theaters to get the film booked.

As of today, the site has received more than 8000 requests from screenings. Fans can use their website to monitor requests and to help them to identify other potential viewers in their neighborhood. As Crumley explained,

We’ve learned that it’s almost impossible to distribute your film to theaters the way the current system works, but their are loop holes, and they are building your own audience and then proving to theater owners you have that audience and that they are willing to show up to pay money to see your film that’s something distributors don’t have to do, but theaters would really benefit if they did.

The film and the web campaign behind it has drawn interest from the Sundance Channel which plans to broadcast it down the line but who used it to launch a series of screenings of independent films in Second Life, where once again it played to packed houses.

Based on their experiences, the filmmakers have started talking about what they call “collective curation” of content: a scenario where independent producers court audiences via the web, creating interest through clips and previews, and identifying where they have a strong enough following to justify the expense of renting theater space and shipping prints. They believe that such an approach will help other directors get their work before enthusiastic paying customers.

Seeking to support other filmmakers who want to follow in their footsteps, the Four Eyed Monsters team has posted a list of more than 600 movie theaters around the country which they think might be receptive to independent films and encouraging others to fill in relevant details.

The filmmakers will be sharing some of their experiences and perspectives to those attending the Beyond Broadcast conference this Saturday. As reported here earlier, this conference is being co-hosted by the MIT Comparative Media Studies Program, Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet Law, and Yale’s Information Society Project.

The Four Eyed Monsters team also play a prominent role in the newly released documentary on videoblogging which CMS graduate student (and Beyond Broadcasting organizer) Steve Schultz has helped to produce for the Project nml Exemplar Library. As I have mentioned here before, we are producing a series of web-based documentaries for use by schools and after school programs interested in getting young people involved in media production projects. I will be featuring more information about this documentary down the line but I wanted to call it to your attention in advance of the Beyond Broadcast conference since it provides such a useful overview of the implications of citizen-based media. This is the first of the documentaries produced under the supervision of our newly hired production coordinator, the talented Anna Van Someren.

From YouTube to YouNiversity

I wrote the following article for Chronicle of Higher Education and it seems to be stimulating some discussion out there. Since at some point it will be taken off the Chronicle’s site, I figured I would exercise my rights as an author to republish it here. My one regret is that the Chronicle removed a reference to William Uricchio who is my co-director of the CMS program and whose contributions are key to the program’s success.

Consider these developments: At the end of last year, Time named “You” its Person of the Year “for seizing the reins of the global media, for founding and framing the new digital democracy, for working for nothing and beating the pros at their own game.” Earlier in the year, Newsweek described such sites as Flickr, MySpace, Craigslist, Digg, and YouTube as “putting the ‘We’ in the Web.” The business “thought leader” Tim O’Reilly has termed these new social-network sites “Web 2.0,” suggesting that they represent the next phase in the digital revolution — no longer about the technologies per se but about the communities that have grown up around them. Some are even describing immersive online game worlds such as Second Life as the beginnings of Web 3.0. All of this talk reflects changes that cut across culture and commerce, technology and social organization.

Over the past few years, we have also seen a series of books (both journalistic and academic) that analyze and interpret these new configurations of media power. In his recent book The Wealth of Networks, Yochai Benkler describes the reconfiguration of power and knowledge that occurs from the ever more complex interplay between commercial, public, educational, nonprofit, and amateur media producers. Grant McCracken’s Plenitude talks about the “generativeness” of this cultural churn. Chris Anderson (The Long Tail) shows how these shifts are giving rise to niche media markets, and Thomas W. Malone (The Future of Work) analyzes how such changes are reshaping the management of major companies. My own book, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide, describes a world where every story, image, sound, brand, and relationship plays itself out across the widest possible array of media platforms, and where the flow of media content is shaped as much by decisions made in teenagers’ bedrooms as it is by decisions made in corporate boardrooms.

These writers come from very different disciplinary perspectives — business, law, anthropology, and cultural studies — and they write in very different styles. We can’t really call this work an intellectual movement: Most of us didn’t know of one another’s existence until our books started to hit the shelves. Yet taken together, these books can be read as a paradigm shift in our understanding of media, culture, and society. This work embodies an ecological perspective on media, one that refuses to concentrate on only one medium at a time but insists that we take it all in at once and try to understand how different layers of media production affect one another. As such, these books represent a new route around the ideological and methodological impasses between political economy (with its focus on media concentration) and cultural studies (with its focus on resistant audiences). And these books represent a new way of thinking about how power operates within an informational economy, describing how media shifts are changing education, politics, religion, business, and the press.

Many of these books share the insight that a networked culture is enabling a new form of bottom-up power, as diverse groups of dispersed people pool their expertise and confront problems that are much more complex than they could handle individually. They are able to do so because of the ways that new media platforms support the emergence of temporary social networks that exist only as long as they are needed to face specific challenges or respond to the immediate needs of their members. Witness, for example, the coalition of diverse ideological interests that came together last year to fight for the principle of network neutrality on the Web.

The science-fiction writer and Internet activist Cory Doctorow has called such groups “adhocracies.” An adhocracy is a form of social and political organization with few fixed structures or established relationships between players and with minimum hierarchy and maximum diversity. In other words, an adhocracy is more or less the polar opposite of the contemporary university (which preserves often rigid borders between disciplines and departments and even constructs a series of legal obstacles that make it difficult to collaborate even within the same organization). Now try to imagine what would happen if academic departments operated more like YouTube or Wikipedia, allowing for the rapid deployment of scattered expertise and the dynamic reconfiguration of fields. Let’s call this new form of academic unit a “YouNiversity.”

How might media studies, the field most committed to mapping these changes as they affect modern life, be taught in a YouNiversity?

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The Only Thing We Have to Fear…

The other day, I had a discussion of the politics of fear with Doug Thomas (USC), Carrie James (Harvard), and Larry Johnson (The New Media Consortium) as part of a gathering of MacArthur foundation grantees working on their Youth and Digital Learning Initiative. I was pretty happy with some of the ideas that emerged from that conversation so I thought I would share them with my readers.

Let’s start with an example of how the politics of fear works. Consider, for example, the case of a recently proposed piece of legislation here in Massachusetts which would regulate violent video games as in effect a form of pornography. Here’s how GamePolitics describes the legislation:

The proposed legislation, which does not yet have a primary sponsor, would block underage buyers from purchasing any game which:

* depicts violence in a manner patently offensive to prevailing standards in the adult community, so as to appeal predominantly to the morbid interest in violence of minors

* is patently contrary to prevailing standards of adults in the county where the offense was committed as to suitable material for such minors

* and lacks serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value for minors.

The bill in question was written by Jack Thompson, who has sought similarly legislation around the country and has consistently been overturned by court decisions. Interestingly enough, the most outspoken backer of this law is none other than Boston Mayor Thomas Menino — who is, incidentally, the same local politician who is responsible for the city’s gross over-reaction to the Aqua Hunger Force signs the other week. I find myself pondering why we can’t just tell people that Menino is someone who has demonstrated already that he is so out of touch with popular culture that he can’t tell the difference between a cartoon character and a bomb and that he is someone who is afraid of his own shadow (or more accurately, who understands the political advantages to be gained by fostering a climate of fear). Given the current logic of the way our fear-based politics functions, we might expect them to ban cartoon characters on airplanes and have our children line up to be searched for coloring books and stuffed toys before they can pass through security!

Or consider the case of the late and unlamented Deleting Online Predators Act which would have prohibited school and public libraries which receive federal funds from allowing patrons to access social network and blogging software. Senator Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) has introduced a new piece of legislation, the so-called Protecting Children in the 21st Century act, which would incorporate and expand upon many of the more noxious features of the original DOPA. I am sure we will be talking about this more in the months ahead. It would seem to one of the clear hallmarks of the politics of fear is the use of the term, “protection” or “protecting” in the name of the legislation.

In both cases, these bills, which are based on a fundamentally wrong-headed understanding of the issues they are designed to address, attracted or are likely to attract significant levels of bipartisan support. Indeed, in a highly partisan political climate, these kind of bills may be the only pieces of legislation which pass with little or no debate and with overwhelming support.

Why? Well, consider what it would mean to be opposed to a bill which promised to protect young people from online predators. And indeed, even if you decided to oppose such a bill, you either would have to deny that the problem existed (which would leave you to be labeled as hopelessly out of touch with the darker side of reality since these bills usually feed on at least some high profile tragedies or some sensationalized news report) or you would have to suggest the problem is not as bad as has been claimed (in which case your acknowledgment of the problem will be used as evidence of how wide spread the concern being addressed really is.) So, the politics of fear works because the costs of opposing the child protection acts are simply too high, especially in an era where political leaders are permanently raising money and campaigning for re-election.

The politics of fear also works because the benefits of a fear-based politics are so high. Basically, such legislation enjoys bipartisan support because it allows culturally conservative Republicans to appeal to their base and liberal Democrats to show their independence from theirs. Why do Joseph Lieberman and Hillary Clinton line up behind pretty much any piece of legislation which would restrict free expression in the name of protecting young people? Because it allows them to adopt positions which make them see “moderate” and appeal to so-called “security moms” without really crossing any core constituency. There would be costs in, say, opposing abortion but there is no real cost in trying to regulate youth access to digital technology.

The politics of fear works because it serves the interest of the news media in two ways: First, the mass media are feeling the erosion of their consumer base to digital media. If they can convince parents that it is unsafe to allow their sons and daughters to go online or play video games, they may slow the erosion. They have little to fear from alienating those young viewers further since they are already defecting in great numbers and essentially mass media news speaks to an older consumer base. Second, fear-based coverage leaves us glued to the set, seeking out more information. We are doomed to go from one crisis to another, to have Anna Nicole Smith’s death and custody battle push Barack Obama’s announcement for the presidency off the lead slot on CNN, because fear and outrage trumps hope everytime.

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