It’s thesis time at the Comparative Media Studies Program — always a period of great pride and intense stress for me, since I end up serving on an overwhelming number of committees and have the joy of watching my students complete projects which drew them to MIT two years ago. Over the next few weeks, for both reasons, I am going to be sharing with you some of the highlights of the work produced by these students. Doing so allows me to showcase some really exceptional students and it also allows me to shift a little of my focus away from maintaining the blog and onto my day job reviewing student work.
Today and tomorrow, I am running an extended excerpt from Sam Ford’s thesis, “As the World Turns in a Convergence Culture.” Some selections of this thesis have already appeared in my blog when Sam took over as guest host while I was traveling to Poland last fall. Ford has been the key person who maintains the Convergence Culture Consortium blog over the past two years, helping him to establish his own reputation as an important commentator on industry trends. He also taught our course this term on professional wrestling which we discussed in the blog a week or so back. Here, he draws on three of his interests — soaps, wrestling, and superhero comics — to extend on the concept of an immersive story world. You will see here as well some of the legacy of my assignment getting students to think about ways to draw more deeply on their own personal experiences as a source for their theoretical projects.
Immersive Story Worlds
by Sam Ford
My History with Immersive Story Worlds
Growing up an only child with a stay-at-home mom, I spent my childhood days engrossed in what I have come to call immersive story worlds. In truth, I began my relationship with popular culture with no more than an antenna connection and a collection of toys. For me, it was G.I. Joe. I have never fancied being a military man and really do not remember too many playground days spent pretending to be a soldier, but the world of G.I. Joe fascinated me nonetheless. The dozens of characters I found for $2.97 apiece at Wal-Mart drove my interest in the alternate military reality these characters inhabited. Every toy included a biography of that character on the back, which I clipped and kept–in alphabetical order no less. I ended up with a group of friends who also collected and kept up with the world of G.I. Joe.
My love for G.I. Joe soon spilled over into the Marvel G.I. Joe comic books, where these characters came to life. I read those comics until the covers fell off, hoping to learn everything I could about each character and apply that knowledge to the games I played as well. I soon became engaged with the whole Marvel comic book universe, and I spent most of my $10 weekly allowance following the weekly or monthly adventures of Spider-Man, the X-Men, Hulk, and a slew of other colorful characters. Yet again, I found contemporaries at school who shared my interest in comic books. They wanted to be comic book artists, and I wanted to be a comics writer, so we set about to create a comic book universe of our own.
At the same time, I was becoming familiar with another immersive story world, that of the superstars of the World Wrestling Federation, now known as WWE. My cousins had long told me the legends of Hulk Hogan and “Macho Man” Randy Savage and The Ultimate Warrior, but I didn’t know where to tune in to glimpse into this universe from a syndication window. However, my parents’ decision to get a VCR opened me up to a slew of videotapes my cousins mailed to me and the growing collection of wrestling shows available at the local rental shops and convenience stores. Finally, I even convinced my neighbors to let me come over and start watching the Monday night wrestling shows since they had cable television. The Marvel superhero universe and the World Wrestling Federation were my media fascinations, and they both fit into this category I now write about as immersive story worlds, a concept I will flesh out in the next couple of posts.
Enter As the World Turns
There was another immersive story world that I had been involved with as well, one that I was not completely cognizant of being a fan of at first. It was what my grandmother always referred to as “the story” and probably the narrative in which I first came to know a slew of familiar faces, an immersive story world that predated my interest in G.I. Joes, super heroes, or professional wrestling. That narrative was Procter & Gamble Productions’ As the World Turns (ATWT), a daily daytime serial drama that has been on the air since 1956. For as long as I can remember, ATWT was a part of my weekday afternoon, and the familiar faces of the Hughes family, joined by the evil James Stenbeck, the scheming Dr. John Dixon, the incomparable Lucinda Walsh, the down-to-earth Snyders, the lively Lisa Grimaldi, and a host of other characters were regular parts of my childhood.
I may not have realized that I was immersed in the fictional world of Oakdale, Illinois, until I started wondering what was happening to those characters when the school year began and I was no longer home in the afternoons. By the mid-1990s, I convinced my mom to record the show so I could watch it when I came home from elementary school every day. In fact, I was a somewhat closeted soap opera viewer all the way through most of high school. By my junior year, though, I had started a night job after school and lost contact with the residents of Oakdale.
By the end of my senior year of high school, I was married. My distance from ATWT didn’t last, though, and my wife and I were dedicated viewers of the soap opera again a couple of years into college. With so many familiar faces and back stories to remember, it was hard not to get pulled back into the narrative and eventually join fan communities to find out what had happened in the world of ATWT while I had been away. My continued interest in this show is closely connected to the social relationships I built around it. The conversations I would join with my mother and grandmother about “the story” have continued over dinner every night with my wife. In the process, I have come to understand soap viewing as a social activity, which helped tremendously in understanding and becoming a part of the fan community built around ATWT.
Perhaps just as importantly, I have come to understand soap operas as primarily powered by character-driven storytelling. The strength of this genre lies in relationships, including the relationships characters have with one another, the relationships between these characters and the fans, and the relationships fans build around these texts. Soap operas are hindered by plot-driven storytelling because the permanent nature of the soap opera, with no off-season and 250 original hours of programming each year, emphasizes slow storytelling that examines the emotion and nuances of events rather than just “what happens.” Comic books and pro wrestling are personality and character-driven genres as well, and good storytelling is consistently determined by the fan base of each genre as those in which the relationships among characters (and the performances of the actors or artists depicting those characters) are logical, well-written, and fleshed out.
These three narrative types–the daytime serial drama, the pro wrestling world, and the DC and Marvel universes–share a set of similarities I have grouped under this category of immersive story worlds. By this term, I mean that these properties have a serial storytelling structure, multiple creative forces which author various parts of the story, a sense of long-term continuity, a deep character backlog, contemporary ties to the media property’s complex history, and a sense of permanence. I will examine each of these aspects over the next few pages.
This thesis concentrates particularly on the immersive story world of As the World Turns and its current status in a shifting media landscape. My interest in this soap opera text is heavily tied to my fascination with this type of immersive story world in general, in which one can never truly “master” the material. Immersive story worlds provide a space particularly rich for interaction between a text and a vibrant fan community that critiques, energizes, maintains, and fills in the gaps of that official canon. Further, as Henry Jenkins writes in Convergence Culture, the “extension, synergy, and franchising (that) are pushing media industries to embrace convergence” have long been a part of these narrative worlds in one fashion or another, so that these marginalized texts have a lot to offer for informing other media producers. These worlds are unusually ripe for transmedia content, user-generated content, and a wealth of online fan forums. However, they also generate a distinct niche fan environment that is both energized by and suffers from being considered somewhat fringe, even as each has long been a massive cultural phenomenon. In order to understand exactly what is meant by immersive story worlds, however, it is important to examine each characteristic of this categorization.
All three types of worlds within this category share a strong sense of seriality. While soap operas have best taken advantage of seriality and have made that never-ending unfolding of drama part of their very definition, they are often tied together with telenovelas and other forms of melodrama which do not have the same type of long- term seriality that soaps have. Soap operas can master storylines that unfold over weeks, months, or even years in a way few other texts can. For instance, there is a
long-running feud on As the World Turns between characters Kim Hughes and Susan Stewart that began after Dr. Stewart slept with Kim’s husband Bob–back in 1990. That plot point often creeps up in current storylines and will not be forgotten in the show’s history. Similarly, in 2006, the explosively popular Luke and Laura supercouple from General Hospital in the 1970s were reunited for a short time in storylines, drawing on 25 years of history for the couple, still portrayed by the same actors.
Over time, seriality has become a conscious part of creating immersive story worlds, and strong utilization of quality serial storytelling was not a requirement of any of these media forms in their infancy but rather the way in which creators constructed these worlds over time. For instance, according to Bradford W. Wright in Comic Book Nation, Marvel deserves much credit for creating a loosely cohesive narrative universe. Many comic book stories before that time were each standalone tales, with the characters returned to a static point at the end of each issue, from which the next story would drive from as well. Even after the creation of the Marvel Universe, creators often failed to capitalized on the potential for seriality, and most monthly installments were isolated stories. However, t Marvel titles featured an increasing number of crossovers and ongoing storylines, not just in the battle between good and evil but in the personal lives of the characters as well–work relationships, romantic entanglements, and supporting family members whose personal dramas were as compelling at times as the main narrative.
One can see how important seriality is particularly in the Ultimates Marvel universe that has become popular in recent years. At the beginning of the decade, Marvel decided to relaunch the stories of several of its characters in contemporary times, telling familiar stories of the origins of Marvel staples like Spider-Man while being able to map out a more coherent continuity. Now that the Ultimate Spider-Man title has passed its centennial issue, the new universe is building its own continuity and makes particularly good use of seriality, with the personal lives of the characters of each title run often much more important in the long-term than the hero’s battle with super-villains or else interwoven so completely between the various parallel plots that the continuity from issue to issue is much more developed than the comic book series in previous decades.
The rise of the graphic novel relates closely to these changes. The strength of the Marvel universe is that it has created a more viable archiving system than that of pro wrestling or soap operas, which are still struggling with ways to make previous content readily available for viewers. The popularity of the graphic novel has given fans an easy way to collect and archive their favorite comic book runs, and the format of the graphic novel–grouping together multiple issues from a comic book run–encourages writers to work even harder at developing serial storytelling from issue-to-issue.
Pro wrestling has long used seriality in booking various wrestling feuds. Television shows were used to create storylines to make people want to go to the arenas and pay for a ticket to see the matches that were set up from television interviews and angles. Often, a contested ending between two wrestlers at one show made fans want to return to the arena next month to see the rematch and the drama continue between two competitors. For instance, at Madison Square Garden in 1981, then WWE Champion Bob Backlund was defending his title against a grappler named Greg “The Hammer” Valentine. During the melee, the referee was accidentally hit and knocked to the mat, groggy. The referee saw that Backlund had his challenger pinned and counted the three. Because he still had not recovered from his own fall, the referee did not distinguish which wrestler had the other pinned (both men were wearing the same color tights), so when Valentine started celebrating as if he had been the one who had scored the pin instead of being the one who was down for the count, the referee handed him the championship belt. Backlund, of course, contested the finish, and the decision was made to have a rematch for the held up title when the WWE returned to Madison Square Garden the next month. In this case, there was both a standalone storyline on that particular card and also an ongoing story that fans would return to see from one month to the next.
However, the WWE and other wrestling organizations have developed the serial format of wrestling over the years much further, especially as the television product became more important in itself rather than just driving fans to watch the wrestlers perform in person. The writers discovered that they way to get fans to tune in from one week to the next and purchase the culminating pay-per-view events was to build ongoing feuds in serial fashion, with the each episode always pointing toward the next and each pay-per-view not only producing the climax for some feuds but creating ongoing chapters in others or creating new storylines that would play out in the coming months.