Yesterday, I ran the first part of a two-part excerpt from Sam Ford’s thesis, focused around the concept of Immersive Story Worlds. The thrust of his thesis deals with issues of fan relations, brand integration, audience building, and transmedia storytelling in the realm of contemporary soap opera. But this passage compares soaps systematically with two other forms of expansive entertainment — superhero comics and professional wrestling.
Immersive Story Worlds
by Sam Ford
All three examples of immersive story worlds provided here are too large for any one creator to accomplish. Each of these worlds have passed through many creative hands over the years, with no one creator necessarily being THE defining vision of what this world means. In each case, there is a sense of the narrative world having a life of its own and being bigger than any particular creative regime. The fact that all three of these narrative worlds have stood the test of time is evidenced in the way they have weathered passing off from one creative hand to the other. Although Stan Lee is often credited with being a defining force in the initial creation of the modern Marvel Universe, along with Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby and others, many writers, artists, and editors have helped shape the trajectory of these characters through the following decades. Not only have various creative regimes had control of an individual series over the years, there are creative teams working on each title within the Marvel Universe at any one time, meaning that–although Marvel as a content producer has centralized control over the official narrative universe of its characters, there is still a decentralized process of creating the Marvel Universe and fleshing out all its corners, developed through the many creative forces who have passed through the company over what is now almost 50 years.
Soap operas may have a defining creator, such as Irna Phillips and Bill Bell and Agnes Nixon, and the creative vision of each of these people have often helped define the long-term feel for many of these shows. However, the number of writers that work on a show at any one time, from the creative influence of the executive producer to the overall stories of the head writer(s) to the way that is broken down into scenes and dialogue, demonstrates the hundreds of creators who have had an influence on soaps stories through the years. Consider how much impact the thousands of actors who have appeared on these shows have had as well, in addition to directors and other creative forces, and there is certainly no clear “author” of any of these soap opera texts. Even if fans have particular writing teams that they have preferred over others or certain periods of a show that they consider “golden eras,” there is no single writer that can be seen as the single defining source of a show, especially once it has been on the air for decades.
As for pro wrestling, the fact that wrestling narratives often spilled over from territory to territory and that wrestlers who retain the copyright to their own characters would jump from one show to the other ensures that, in addition to the constant shifting of creative forces within the bookers of any particular wrestling organization, there was also a meta text that fans would follow which branched across every wrestling show in the country. In the regional days of wrestling, fans would follow characters as they moved across the country, being written by a variety of creative forces along the way. Now that the WWE is the major show left in wrestling, there are three WWE divisions, each with their own head writer; and there are still alternative wrestling promotions that often take characters who leave the WWE, like TNA wrestling on Spike TV. In addition, the wrestlers themselves are traditionally known for developing many of their own attributes, and the performance of the audience affects every show as well (and audiences often stray from the intent of the people who scripted the reactions they are “supposed” to have on live shows). It’s hard to identify who “creates” the final product of any particular wrestling show, much less the ongoing narratives of the various characters.
Although fans in all three genres would likely sometimes debate that creators care enough about this category of immersive story worlds, there is at least some semblance of long-term continuity in developing these worlds. This is what sets the long-term development of iconic characters apart from these continued story worlds, in that these story worlds are only created if there is some idea of prior stories being relevant to the next one rather than a series of adventures that seem completely removed from the next. Continuity is the way writers are often graded in all three genres. Generally, creators in each genre both praise the creative potential gained by such extensive back stories and also complain about the restraints that history places on their creative abilities when fans are watching their current content closely with how it measures up to the history of characters and stories. For fans, though, since they know these story worlds were around long before the current creative team came along and believe that they will continue to be around long after they are gone, continuity is often considered the most important aspect of the product, and they see it as their job to uphold it through amassing their collective intelligence.
Soap operas–because they are the most blatantly serial of the three– is where continuity often matters most. Certain aspects of the genre have been accepted as defying continuity. For instance, when the actor portraying a central character leaves the show, recasts are sometimes accepted as necessary evils. Also, fans accept what has been called the Soap Opera Rapid Aging Syndrome (SORAS). Often, younger characters are SORASed when there is an actor switch, advancing their age by a couple of years. When a character leaves town to go to college, they sometimes return a few years older than they should be non-soap opera aging standards. For instance, Tom Hughes may have been born in 1961, but he somehow ended up in Vietnam before the end of the war. Various viewers combined their collective intelligence to construct both when characters first appeared or were born on the show and also their apparent current age, comparing this to the age of the actor playing the role, and particularly how the various numbers often do not add up.
Aside from these deviations, however, soap fans expect writers to research the histories of these characters and to write current storylines according to that history. Writers are most often graded with their ability to write characters consistently, both within their own duration with the show and consistent with the long-term history of the show. If characters appear in a scene who have had a long history with each other that the current writers seem ignorant of or if a long-time family member no longer on the show seems to be forgotten by the current writing team, veteran fans are vocal about what they feel is poorly researched writing. Conversely, if writers make subtle references to important stories in a character’s past–as long as those comments are relevant to the current story and do not get in the way of contemporary fans’ enjoyment of the story–writers are generally praised for having shown some degree of mastery of the text.
Soaps writers are often haunted by this legacy and the fact that the fans collectively have much stronger knowledge of the product than they do. In a Winter 2006 interview with Soaps In Depth, As the World Turns head writer Jean Passanante complained about the impossible learning curve involved with trying to write characters. Not surprisingly, bashed her for having been with the show for years and still not seeming to be able to dedicate the time to learn the history as well as she should. Since these fans are amassing their collective intelligence to understand the continuity of the show for free based solely on their own interest in the narrative, they hold the people who are paid to be the gatekeepers for the story world to higher standards.
Pro wrestling has been most notoriously lax in its use of continuity, especially with turning characters from good to bad and often having rivals one year be partners the next. However, fans still have long- term memories and try to make sense of the narrative, even when writers drop the ball. The WWE writers do sometimes make veryeffective use of history, however, especially in creating iconic moments at events that are then drawn upon again and again. The art of slowly building a feud, beginning with subtle hints and then arguments and then a major clash, with several plot twists along the way, is the way legendary characters and matches are created in wrestling, and they are most often successful when the writers have the strongest grasp on maintaining continuity with the characters and the feud.
Comic books have to maintain a somewhat slippery use of continuity. Because the characters cannot age with real time and must somehow be contemporary while also maintaining a degree of timelessness, there have been plenty of contradictions along the way. Particularly because comics are not tied to actors like the pro wrestling and soap opera worlds, there is more opportunities to create alternate universes and several versions of the Marvel Universe being produced simultaneously, for instance, so that there are multiple continuities from the Marvel creative team.
Fans are often known for trying to police continuity, and Marvel’s interactive section of their comics was often known for rewarding readers when they catch continuity slips from the creative team and attempted to come up with their own explanations of how that seemingly discordant event somehow makes sense in the larger Marvel Universe narrative. Marvel writers sometimes tried to emphasize continuity by making random references to old issues, but the best use of continuity comes when writers demonstrate a mastery of the history of the universe and make reference to prior events when they are germane to the current story. Prolific contemporary Marvel creator Brian Michael Bendis considers maintaining the continuity of the universe both a blessing and a curse, giving him headaches but providing a wealth of inspiration from the past of each character.
All three story worlds have many more characters in their histories than can be featured at any one time, yet fan activities often surround understanding and cataloguing the wealth of characters in the universe. Each character backlog is indexed and managed in much different ways and for divergent purposes, however. The soap opera universe is full of character histories, the majority of which are not currently featured on the shows. As shows have been on the air for decades, some characters drop completely out of relevance for the contemporary product, although fans interested in the history of a particular show might be interested in finding out the importance of that character in years past. However, many of the soaps characters not currently on a show are directly relevant to storylines that are still ongoing. Often, brothers and sisters, children, aunts and uncles, cousins, grandparents, ex-husbands and wives, of current characters are no longer on the shows but must be acknowledged in current storylines. For fans, this means that the current official product they are watching on television is only a small part of the whole story world, and there is always the potential for characters who have not been killed (and sometimes even those who have) to return to the show or at least to be mentioned from time-to-time. In other words, the fictional world of Oakdale or Springfield or Genoa City or Salem or Llanview is much bigger than the town itself and its current inhabitants, and fans have that broader view in mind when they question what these various characters would think about storylines or if they will return to the show for the wedding of a relative.
Wrestling’s character backlog is more complicated in its relevance, as competitors only have so many years in which they can perform at their physical prime. Legends in wrestling are often still used, either for nostalgia’s sake or else as supporting players in the characters of the modern product (whether as commentators or managers or officials who play a part in the current drama, or as returning recurring characters from time-to-time). In wrestling, former competitors are built up as legends and often drawn upon for comparisons with modern stars or to evoke the history of the narrative. The nostalgia for this backlog of characters helps fuel publications, DVD releases, and the WWE 24/7 On Demand product, for instance, which airs “classic” matches featuring these various legends who may now be members of the WWE Hall of Fame.
The Marvel and DC universes likely have the most expansive character lists of all, and returning characters in these worlds are much more fluid, since these characters are not tied to portrayers. Any super hero or villain from the vast reserve of the history of each universe can be drawn upon at any time, and some of the best work of contemporary creators have been in restoring the validity of lesser- known characters from the past through current storylines, such as with Bendis’ Alias or the Marvel Black Panther series, or DC’s 52, in which a several relatively minor DC characters become the featured cast. As Henry Jenkins writes in Beautiful Things in Popular Culture, this modern revisiting of neglected characters from a comic universe’s history in an alternate or contemporary text can reconceptualize characters “to up their ‘coolness’ factor,” while still playing off the knowledge fans have of those characters in the long-standing narrative.
Contemporary Ties to a Deep History
As I have alluded to several times in the previous sections, the art of an immersive story world often lies in tying events from the rich pasts of these narrative universes into the contemporary product. Bringing up relevant back story and tying it into the current plights of featured characters highlight what many fans consider the art of creation within immersive story worlds. Particularly in the soap opera world, fans both simultaneously praise good use of history on the writers’ part and, perhaps more often, use their communal knowledge of history to drive their collective creativity. The fans watch the story unfold each day and then go online to create an historical perspective on a character’s action that day, both to rate the writers’ use of continuity and also to help flesh out and unpack meanings they see hidden in the text based on knowledge of the characters’ past, or else point out the contradictions in characters’ current actions or statements based on their histories.
For instance, when the characters of Mike and Katie Kasnoff broke up on As the World Turns in November 2006, Mike was indignant that Katie had slept with her ex-husband. Many fans sided with Mike in the fight, pointing out the many times Katie had acted this way in past relationships. Conversely, other fans pointed out Mike’s hypocrisy, based on the fact that he reunited with Katie while still married to Jennifer, thus making his moralistic tirade about fidelity somewhat ironic, since the most recent version of his and Katie’s relationship began with an infidelity. In December 2006, when ATWT‘s Craig Montgomery had been shot in the chest and was lying in a hospital bed, telling everyone around him how Dusty Donovan was a terrible human being because he had shot Craig in cold blood and how Craig would never do something so vicious, veteran fans could alert more recent viewers to the fact that Craig had actually shot a man a few years ago in a crime that he was never punished for nor even suspected by the majority of people in town. While the show never gave any blatant evidence of the hypocrisy of either man’s claim, the viewers were able to fill in the pieces for each other based on the seemingly endless wealth of material.
What sets immersive story worlds apart, what makes them immersive indeed, is that the well of backstory is so deep that no one person can masterfully plumb its depths. Veteran fans may serve as memories, but no one of them can fill in all the pieces of the puzzle. Web sites that provide back stories, or books that attempt to summarize major plot developments over the years, would be impossible for one person to internalize and–even if one could– still only provides a summary and not the rich details of each character and plot. These three worlds are set apart because there can be no expert who can quote almost every comic book or episode or pay-per-view. Not even a Rainman-style memory could recite every villain Spider-Man has faced in order, much less all of the developments of the Marvel universe, nor could they rattle off the results of every episode of Monday Night RAW for the past decade.
In the wrestling world, fans are equally as obsessed with filling in backstory, not necessarily always to be directly relevant to the current feuds but to draw comparisons between a feud or match of contemporary competitors with their predecessors. Wrestling fans have major web projects such as Kayfabe Memories, newsletters like” Wrestling as We Liked It, and a wealth of books from wrestling historians, wrestling journalists, and a growing number of memoirs from wrestling legends, all of whom provide a small piece of the puzzle of the history of the meta pro wrestling text, even if many are unreliable narrators. This act of preservation and navigating wrestling’s deep history has been important to fans both because promoters for so long did very little of it and also because many of the major matches in wrestling history are no longer available for viewing, since arena shows were not often taped and the weekly television shows in most territories were not considered valuable at the time and often taped over with the next week’s show.
In comic books, the huge archives drive much more than professional collectors and sales of graphic novels. The backstory fleshes out the histories of characters and their nuances, as well as relationships with supporting characters. There is a feeling that the subtle secrets to a character’s history may be hidden in the pages of the archives and that understanding the present requires a reader’s own willingness to dig into the past. In newer projects like the Ultimates universe or other Marvel or DC Universes that provide alternatives to the main universe, there is also a need to read the narratives from the main universe in order to compare the parallel stories. For instance, Bendis’ recreation of many of the important Spider-Man plots over the years is a much richer experience for those who have already read and are intimately familiar with the original, thus meaning that Marvel and DC have an even deeper wealth of content if fans want to be able to understand alternative universes within the Marvel and DC worlds to their fullest extent. Of course, even if a fan were to collect every extant issue available in digital or tangible form, there would be no way to internalize that amount of material, even for the most ardent fan.
Some of the categories listed above may also apply to some novel series, primetime television shows, online worlds, or other narrative universes. However, what these three share that perhaps no other particular media product does is a feeling of permanence. With the amount of time these narrative universes have lasted so far, there is a feeling of fans that these media properties will long outlive the current creative forces in charge of their gatekeeping, that the product will continue to have an audience long after the current fan base is gone, even. This sets these three worlds apart from any other narrative universe I can think of, where a decade is often considered an amazingly long run for a television show and four or five movies is considered a feat for a movie franchise. Since these worlds have been around for decades, it is important to emphasize–as P. David Marshall does in The New Media Book when writing about a related phenomenon of “the intertextual commodity”–that this concept has been around for some time and is perhaps just more overt in today’s convergence culture.
Some worlds–like Star Trek, Star Wars, and Harry Potter–will likely live on in varying degrees either through descendant series that bear little resemblance to their past with hiatuses in between or else through fan fiction and fan videos, but soap operas, pro wrestling, and the Marvel and DC universes are the only immersive story worlds which have been running for decades now, without any hiatus, and with the continuous output being solely at the hands of the official rights holders to the narrative world.
Many comic book characters have produced thousands of issues by now, with some characters having three or four dedicated titles to their individual story within the Marvel and DC universe, not counting the alternate universes like the ultimate title runs a character may be involved in as well. While fans know that there may be switches in creative forces or major changes in the stories of characters or even certain characters who wax and wane in prominence, there is a semblance that the current narrative world will continue and that the fans’ lifetime investment in reading the comics will continue to be rewarded with no risk of sunk cost in a story world that eventually comes to an end. While some have speculated that the Ultimate story world may eventually replace the old Marvel narrative universe, the two worlds are running side-by-side at this point, and fans will only become fully invested in the Ultimates universe if and when they feel that the wealth of material in that world so far surpasses the confusing original Marvel world that they are willing to make a switch. At this point, though, both worlds are continuing to gain a deeper reserve every month, as fans immerse themselves in both.
The entire conception of pro wrestling seems odd, a con game that fans know is a ruse yet watch both for its narrative potential and its athletic exhibition. The fact that this version of professional wrestling is at least a century old now, though, gives fans the feeling that, even if a current promoter goes under, pro wrestling will live on. Since pro wrestling’s history is tied to actual athletes and careers, there is no one company that can control wrestling history, and fans feel that pro wrestling as a performance art will remain a staple of American and international culture for centuries to come. That feeling of permanence drives much of the obsession with archiving and preserving “wrestling history.”
Soap operas are often called “worlds without end.” Now that some shows have been on television every day for more than 50 years, fans often feel that there is or at least should be a permanent niche for these shows. In recent years, with slowly declining ratings, some fans realize that may not be the case. They blame what they see as incompetent marketers and lazy creative regimes as ruining many shows, and they worry about rumors for cancellation for various shows. Still, even amidst a looming concern that the network could pull the plug, fans consume the daily text as if there is no chance for this to happening, talking often about the future as well as the past and seeing these narrative worlds of One Life to Live or The Young and the Restless as a permanent part of their lives.
Of course, there is no guarantee that the Marvel or DC universe would still be alive and well a century from now. There is an increasing fear that Procter and Gamble Productions or Corday or Bell or a variety of others will decide to pull the plugs within a few years, much less decades. And what’s to keep wrestling from going the way of roller derby or various public carnival events that–once a staple of popular culture–is either no longer a part of our culture at all or else an historicized form of popular art? Nevertheless, the fans, performers, and producers of these shows have participated in these worlds for so long that a looming end does not haunt them in the same way that the producers of a primetime television series must be thinking about a semi-distant ending shortly after they have begun.
Master’s candidate Sam Ford is originally from a small town named McHenry, Ky, located in the suburbs of the twin cities, Beaver Dam and Hartford, in the Home of Bluegrass Music, Ohio County. A weekly columnist for The Ohio County Times-News, Ford writes a column entitled “From Beaver Dam to Boston.” His undergraduate work at Western Kentucky University led to four majors in English (writing), news/editorial journalism, mass communications, and communication studies, as well as a minor in film studies. His research interests include American television, rural journalism, professional wrestling, and soap opera.
Ford has published research on pro wrestling and is conducting his Master’s thesis on transmedia storytelling and producer/fan interaction surrounding the soap opera As the World Turns. In addition, he is a licensed professional wrestling manager and performs for Universal Championship Wrestling in Kentucky. He is a member of the Convergence Culture Consortium at MIT and is co-teaching a course on pro wrestling in Spring 2007. He lives in Boston, MA, with his wife Amanda and his two Pekingese, Brando and Sissy.