Spring Break….

This is just a notice to my regular readers that I am now officially on Spring break and will return to regular blogging duties in another week’s time. It’s painful to log off now as I have lots of cool ideas planned for this space but my wife and staff are both insisting that I take some down time. Something about all work and no play makes Henry a very dull boy.

Transmedia Storytelling 101

I designed this handout on transmedia storytelling to distribute to my students. More recently, I passed it out at a teaching workshop at the Society for Cinema and Media Studies. I thought it might be of value to more of you out there in the community. Much of it builds on the discussion of that concept in Convergence Culture, though I have updated it to reflect some more recent developments in that space.

For those who want to dig deeper still into this concept, check out the webcast version of the Transmedia Entertainment panel from the Futures of Entertainment Conference.

Transmedia Storytelling 101

1. Transmedia storytelling represents a process where integral elements of a fiction get dispersed systematically across multiple delivery channels for the purpose of creating a unified and coordinated entertainment experience. Ideally, each medium makes it own unique contribution to the unfolding of the story. So, for example, in The Matrix franchise, key bits of information are conveyed through three live action films, a series of animated shorts, two collections of comic book stories, and several video games. There is no one single source or ur-text where one can turn to gain all of the information needed to comprehend the Matrix universe.

2. Transmedia storytelling reflects the economics of media consolidation or what industry observers call “synergy.” Modern media companies are horizontally integrated – that is, they hold interests across a range of what were once distinct media industries. A media conglomerate has an incentive to spread its brand or expand its franchises across as many different media platforms as possible. Consider, for example, the comic books published in advance of the release of such films as Batman Begins and Superman Returns by DC ( owned by Warner Brothers, the studio that released these films). These comics provided back-story which enhanced the viewer’s experience of the film even as they also help to publicize the forthcoming release (thus blurring the line between marketing and entertainment). The current configuration of the entertainment industry makes transmedia expansion an economic imperative, yet the most gifted transmedia artists also surf these marketplace pressures to create a more expansive and immersive story than would have been possible otherwise.

3. Most often, transmedia stories are based not on individual characters or specific plots but rather complex fictional worlds which can sustain multiple interrelated characters and their stories. This process of world-building encourages an encyclopedic impulse in both readers and writers. We are drawn to master what can be known about a world which always expands beyond our grasp. This is a very different pleasure than we associate with the closure found in most classically constructed narratives, where we expect to leave the theatre knowing everything that is required to make sense of a particular story.

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Bring Me the Head of Henry Jenkins… (Part Two)

Yesterday, I began the strange saga of how a prosthesis of my head ended up in a glass case in an art gallery in New York City. If you missed that post, you probably want to go back and read it, since the rest of this will make even less sense than usual otherwise.

Some months later, I was sent several pictures of the people on the set of the movie, interacting with my decapitated head, including filling it with blood and guts needed for the gross out elements of the film. I have to say that there’s something uncanny about seeing your head oozing blood onto the asphalt, even if, as many people have pointed out, there isn’t that strong a resemblance to me in the end.

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Once they were done making the movie, the head found its way into the art exhibition and it has been touring galleries in both Europe and North America. I still haven’t seen it myself but I have talked to a number of people who have. And I have started to encounter some of the other “body parts” as I travel around the conference circuit. So far, I have met an arm and a leg.

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Bring Me the Head of Henry Jenkins…. (Part One)

Coming soon to an art gallery near you: My decapitated head. Don’t worry if you don’t live in a major cultural center — my head will also be rolling around in a pool of blood in a straight to video horror movie that you can rent at your local Blockbuster. Well, this is another fine mess I’ve gotten myself into.

In this entry, I will be sharing some images of the process by which the experimental artist Christian Jankowski transformed my head into an art object as part of a work known as “The Violence of Theory.”

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For me, this all began when I was asked by the folks at MIT’s List Gallery to give a talk about the intersection between popular culture and high art. (I have for a number of years served as part of the advisory group for the gallery, though I have been relatively inactive lately.) I decided to present a talk based on my essay about Matthew Barney’s relationship to the horror film, an essay which appears in my new anthology, The Wow Climax. In the course of the talk, I moved pretty fluidly from clips and images from Barney’s Cremaster series to clips and quotes from such popular horror artists as David Cronenberg, Wes Craven, and Clive Barker. This paragraph cuts to the heart of my argument:

The modern horror genre was born in the context of romanticism (with authors seeking within the monster and his creator powerful metaphors for their own uneasy relationship with bourgeois culture) and the horror film originated in the context of German expressionism (with the studios demanding that madness or the supernatural be put forth as a justification for the powerful feelings generated by that new aesthetic sensibility.) The popular aesthetic’s demand for affective intensity and novelty requires that popular artists constantly renew their formal vocabulary. Representing the monstrous gives popular artists a chance to move beyond conventional modes of representation, to imagine alternative forms of sensuality and perception, and to invert or transform dominant ideological assumptions. Historically, horror filmmakers have drawn on the “shock of the new” associated with cutting edge art movements to throw us off guard and open us up to new sensations.

From the start, horror films have required a complex balancing between the destabilization represented by those avant garde techniques and the restabilization represented by the reassertion of traditional moral categories and aesthetic norms in the films’ final moments. There is always the danger that these new devices will prove so fascinating in their own right that they will swamp any moral framing or narrative positioning. For many horror fans, the genre becomes most compelling and interesting where narrative breaks down and erotic spectacle and visual excess takes over.

If the horror film has a moment of original sin, it came when the producers of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari inserted, at the last moment, a frame story that recontextualized the film’s expressionist mise-en-scene as the distorted vision of a mad man. Through this compromise, they created a permanent space for modern art sensibilities within popular culture but only at the price of them no longer being taken seriously as art.

Among those people in the audience for the talk was Christian Jankowski, then in residence at MIT, as he was setting up an exhibition, “Everything Fell Together,” in the gallery. Some months later, Jankowski contacted me again, this time to talk about his newest project, a series of artistic explorations of the culture around the contemporary horror film. Jankowiski had found a low budget horror film production which was willing to work with him to create a parallel work: he wanted to interview some of the leading theorists of the horror genre and incorporate their insights into the dialogue of the film. And while he was at it, he wanted to take “impressions” of us and transform them into prosthetic body parts, which would be deployed in gorey ways in the film and then displayed under glass in the installation.

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Just Men in Tights (Part Three)

Today, I offer up to readers the third and final installment of my essay in progress on the superhero genre. In this installment, I continue friday’s discussion of the different strategies adopted by three recent graphic novels — JLA: Year One, The Final Frontier, and Unstable Molecules — in trying to encourage a revisionist perspective on the Silver Age of American comics, the period that more than any other defined the American superhero tradition.

For those of you who are not comic buffs, the Wikipedia offers this definition of the Silver Age:

The Silver Age of Comic Books is an informal name for the period of artistic advancement and commercial success in mainstream American comic books, predominantly in the superhero genre, that lasted roughly from the late 1950s/early 1960s to the early 1970s. It is preceded by the Golden Age of Comic Books.

During the Silver Age, the character make-up of superheroes evolved. Writers injected science fiction concepts into the origins and adventures of superheroes. More importantly, superheroes became more human and troubled, and since the Silver Age, character development and personal conflict have been almost as important to a superhero’s mythos as super powers and epic adventures.

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Just Men in Tights? (Part Two)

Today, I am running part two of the serialized version of my essay, “Just Men in Tights?” This segment takes us on a historical survey of how the superhero tradition emerged, suggesting that the characters we know today emerged through borrowings from a range of pulp genres, including swashbuckler, science fiction, and hardboiled detective traditions. Again and again as we study the history of American comics, superhero writers and artists have returned to their roots in these various pulp traditions — not to mention melodrama, courtroom drama, newspaper stories, fantasy, gangster crime fiction, horror, and political drama, to cite only a few of the other influences. Near the end of this installment, I discuss the first of three recent graphic novels which have sought to re-examine the Silver Age of the superhero genre in relation to the history of the 1950s and 1960s.

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Just Men in Capes? (Part One)

The following essay is being serialized here in part in response to a request from my friends, Ellen Kushner and Delia Sherman, fantasy writers and key players in the Interstitial Arts movement. They heard me give a talk based on this research at Vericon, the Harvard University science fiction, fantasy, comics, and games event last year. They had shared their notes with the readers at their site and have wanted ever since to a way to link to it since it seems so relevent to their ongoing discussion of forms of popular fiction which straddle genre categories.

I am going to be running this essay, which remains, as they say, a “work in progress” in the blog in three installments. Basically, in the passage that follows, I will see what happens when we apply genre theory to the challenges of understanding superhero comics. What’s the problem? Most often, we use genre theory to define and chart differences between genres (as in the case of literary, film, and television studies) but as I argue here, the superhero genre has so dominated the output of American comics in recent years that we need to develop a form of genre analysis that speaks to difference within the genre. Those who don’t read comics might imagine that all superhero comics are more or less the same. But in fact, there is a continual need to generate diversity within the superhero genre to retain the interest of long-standing readers and to capture the interest of new ones.

In this first section, I suggest that there has been a shift in recent years in how the comics industry looks at the superhero genre — a shift away from focusing primarily on building up continuity within the fictional universe and towards the development of multiple and contradictory versions of the same characters functioning as it were in parallel universes. In effect, the most interesting work here could be described as commercially produced fan fiction — that is to say, it involves the continual rewriting and reimagining of the established protagonists. One can find here parallels to many of the kinds of fan rewriting practices I discussed in Textual Poachers, although in this case, this rewriting operates within the commercially produced content. Producers often claim that fans disrupt the coherence of the narrative because they generate multiple and contradictory versions of the same characters and events. The case of comics suggest, however, that readers are interested in consuming alternative visions of the series mythos.

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An Interview with Comics Journalist Joe Sacco (Part Two)

Yesterday, I ran the first part of a two part interview with comics journalist Joe Sacco (Palestine) as conducted by CMS Masters student Huma Yosef (herself a former professional journalist from Pakistan). Today, I continue this interview. It occurred to me as I was putting this together that it represents a fascinating contrast to the interview I ran a week or so back with comics Creator Rob Walton (Ragmop). Both artists are very interested in using comics to explore political issues but they approach these issues from very different vantage points: Sacco creates realist comics that document the everyday lives of people from war-torn countries while Walton uses fantasy and comedy to encourage us to reflect on the American political process. Between them, they suggest some of the ways that comics may function as civic media.

I now turn you over to Huma for the rest of her interview.

In what ways is your method of working akin to that of a journalist?

I conduct lots of rigorous, sit-down interviews, one after the other. Lots of things happen that aren’t part of the interview process, and I’m often in situations where I can’t take notes. In those instances, I duck behind a wall and frantically take as many notes as I can. In the evenings, I translate all my notes into a journal.

I also take photographs whenever I can. I’m currently doing a book about the Gaza Strip for which, after interviewing someone, I’d take his or her photograph. If someone refused to have a picture taken, then I’d try to quickly draw an image of the person in the margin of my notebook. Sometimes, there are things I realize I need to draw only after I start working. In that case, I visually research places later on. When I was working on Palestine, I wasn’t aware of a lot of things and had to draw a lot from memory. With Safe Area Gorazde, my process has evolved. Now, if anything, I take too many pictures.

On the job in Palestine, I also started following stories as they unfolded. Like any reporter who has a little freedom, you follow your nose and try to cover the stories that you don’t think anyone else will tell. For example, Gorazde opened up while I was there – I didn’t know I would write about it until I arrived in Bosnia. Once I identified my subject, I conducted preliminary interviews about what happened, then broke it down into component parts. No doubt, the second time around was a more methodical process as I was a little more self-conscious about what I was doing.

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If You Attended Our Session at South By Southwest…

On Monday, danah boyd and I had a conversation in front of a packed room at South By Southwest in Austin about youth, participatory culture, the politics of fear, wikipedia, Second Life, YouTube, and a range of other topics which will be familiar to those of you who regularly read this blog. Since we are seeing an influx of first time readers about now, I figured I would provide a key to some of the blog posts which touch on issues that cropped up during the session — a kind of one stop shopping to the best of Henry Jenkins (or at least some of the better posts I’ve made since this blog launched last June.)

On YouTube and User-generated Content

YouTube and the Vaudeville Aesthetic

Taking the You Out of YouTube?

How to Watch a Fan-Vid

Astroturf, Humbugs and Lonely Girls

Oreos, “Wal-Mart Time” and User-Generated Advertising

On Second Life

The Great Jenkins/Sharky/Coleman Debate Pre Round 1 Round 2 Round 3 Aftermath

Should I Cornrow My Beard? (About my appearance with Global Kids)

On New Media and Democracy

From Participatory Culture to Participatory Democracy Part One Part Two

Democracy Big Brother Style

National Politics in Game Worlds: The Case of China

On the Future of Education

From YouTube to YouNiversity

on New Media Literacies

White Paper for MacArthur Initiative

on DOPA and the Politics of Fear

The Only Thing We Have to Fear…

What DOPA Means For Education

Four Ways to Kill MySpace

MySpace and the Participation Gap

Joint Interview with danah boyd

on Fans and Intellectual Property

The Magic of Back Story: The Mainstreaming of Fan Culture

In Yoyogi Park (on fans and globalization)

Fan Fiction as Critical Commentary

My Secret Life as a Slasher

Fan Activism in a Networked Culture

In Defense of Crud

Getting Lost

Can One Be a Fan of High Art?

So What Happened to Star Wars Galaxies?

On Wikipedia and Collective Intelligence

Collective Intelligence vs. The Wisdom of Crowds

An Interview with Comics Journalist Joe Sacco (Part One)

Every year, I ask students in my graduate proseminar on Media Theory and Methods to apply what we are learning in the class and do an interview with a media maker. The goal is to pull to the surface their “theory” of the medium in which they operate — the often unarticulated, sometimes well considered, assumptions they make about their audience, their creative context, their techniques, their technology, their cultural status, and so forth. I will be getting a chance this week to see what my students have produced.

I knew going into the process this year that I would be interested to see what Huma Yusuf produced. Huma Yusuf graduated from Harvard in 2002 with a degree in English and American Literature, and returned to Pakistan to work as a journalist. She specializes in writing about social trends as represented in media and media and society issues, in addition to addressing subjects such as low-income housing, ‘honor’ killings, gang wars and the state’s ineffective prosecution of rape cases. Her writing garnered the UNESCO/Pakistan Press Foundation ‘Gender in Journalism 2005′ Award and the European Commission’s 2006 Natali Lorenzo Prize for Human Rights Journalism. Yusuf is interested in investigating the interface among media, local politics and global trends – an intersection that she will explore through sites such as community radio, trends in media consumption, and online environments. With the support of the Higher Education Commission of Pakistan, she is currently launching a first-of-its-kind webzine, the goal of which is to provide an alternate forum where journalists, academics, and media students can examine and critique the Pakistani media industry at large.

I knew because Huma is an interesting person with a journalist’s impulses but also because she was connecting with Joe Sacco, the journalist who has used comics as a vehicle to capture the perspectives of Palestinians living in the West Bank and Occupied Territories and to tell the story of the Bosnian War. We had been lucky enough to have Sacco as a speaker at a CMS colloquium event several years ago (alas, before we started our podcasts!) and I thought interesting things might happen if the two of them got on the phone together. When I heard she was doing the interview, I asked if we could run it on the blog.

Everything from here comes from Huma’s account of the interview:

Working as a reporter in Karachi, Pakistan, I was often frustrated by the limitations imposed on my work by the parameters of traditional journalism. When I filed an interview with the Police Surgeon of Karachi, the man who oversees all forensic evidence gathering and related medico-legal issues in the city, I hated that I couldn’t describe the homophobic graffiti that had been scratched onto the surface of his desk and filing cabinet, the best indication of the kind of pressure under which his team operated. While reporting on a horrific rape case, I would have given anything to describe the self-satisfied way in which the police official I interviewed scratched his crotch using a fly swatter throughout our conversation. That one crude yet probably unconscious gesture said more about the sense of physical entitlement that Pakistani men enjoy than anything I ever wrote. Similarly, if I could have admitted in print that I found myself throwing up in a back alley after visiting the sewage-ridden tin shacks of hundreds of homeless Karachiites, perhaps more people would have been outraged by a government scam that denied access to low-income housing.

I wasted many evenings arguing with my editor about the value of first-person narrative journalism and the shortcomings of objectivity. Unfortunately, neither of us could conjure a reporting template that would be considered appropriate within the standards set by the mainstream media, yet simultaneously capture everything that was raw and repulsive about the reality I was documenting.

Enter Joe Sacco. At the Nieman Conference on Narrative Journalism in Boston last fall, soon after my arrival in the US, I happened upon Palestine, Sacco’s comic journalism tour de force. Although conference participants had spent the weekend brainstorming ways in which to make journalism more textured, insightful, and human, no one had come close to suggesting a technique that could rival the satirical, brutally honest, and profoundly immersive experience that is Sacco’s work.

Often compared to Art Spiegelman’s Maus, Sacco’s award-winning Palestine: In the Gaza Strip (1996) has been hailed for setting new standards in the genre of non-fiction graphic novels, or, as Sacco terms it, comic journalism. With his follow-up effort Safe Area Gorazde: The War In Eastern Bosnia 1992-1995, Sacco established himself as a journalist to be reckoned with. He has since covered all manner of “compelling” events from Ingushetia to Iraq, from rock bands on the road to raids in Ramallah. Each comic is reportage at its best, daring to go behind-the-scenes of journalistic objectivity, using alternating visual chaos and clarity to render a reporter’s all-encompassing experience of a situation. Even better, Sacco’s frames are replete with the adrenaline and anxiety, humor and humanity that are never granted any column inches.

While it would be inappropriate for me to compare Pakistan to Palestine, I do believe that there are some realities so absurd that they demand new ways of telling. Sacco’s work serves as a reminder to all journalists that they should strive to recount the reality that drives their investigations by whatever means necessary. Sacco is currently working on another comic on the Gaza Strip. Until that hits bookstores, we can content ourselves with some thoughts from the cartoonist:

You’ve been described as a pioneer in the field of comic journalism, yet one could argue that your work is part of a long tradition, an evolution of the political cartoon. How do you contextualize your work?

I primarily think of myself as a cartoonist, but also as someone who is interested in political matters and what’s going on in the world. I know there’s a long tradition of illustrators dating back to the London Illustrated and Harper‘s coverage of the Civil War as well as another tradition of artists who deal with political matters, political cartoons, and editorializing news through pictures. In the end, though, my interests have just come together. I wanted to be a journalist and then fell back on an intense hobby to make a living. I don’t think too much about where I place myself and I never really had a theory about what I was doing. People keep asking me about my work, so I’m coming up with something to say post-fact. But the truth is, it’s quite accidental. If you’ve done something for 15 years, you need to build some theory around it, but I wasn’t aware of what I was doing when I started doing it

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