More Transmedia News

I’ve been meaning to do another post on this topic for a while. First, I was inspired by a story in Fast Company, sent to me by Jesse Alexander, which described a gathering of Hollywood’s fan boy elite to talk about the futures of cross-platform storytelling:

Tim Kring, the lanky, goateed guy at the head of the table, created Heroes, NBC’s hit television show about superpowered people. To his right, in a black hoodie and narrow black-framed glasses is Damon Lindelof, cocreator of Lost, ABC’s island-fantasy juggernaut, as well as producer of next year’s eagerly anticipated Star Trek movie, directed by J.J. Abrams. Across the way is Lindelof’s buddy Jesse Alexander, co-executive producer of Heroes (formerly of Lost and the pioneering she-geek hit Alias). Nearby is Rob Letterman, the self-described nerdy director of DreamWorks’ next mega-franchise movie, Monsters vs. Aliens. He’s chatting up video-game creator Matt Wolf, who’s developing a project with Alexander….The long-haired bearded guy pouring straight bourbon is Ron Moore, creator of the new Battlestar Galactica, the SciFi Channel’s acclaimed reimagining of the classic series. The guy eating pizza on the couch is Javier Grillo-Marxauch, a veteran producer of Lost and NBC’s paranormal series Medium, who’s now having his own fantasy graphic novel, Middleman, turned into a series on ABC Family.

so, how come I never get invited to parties like this?

The article goes on to introduce the concept of transmedia entertainment and to suggest that it is one of the hotest topics in the entertainment world today:

“In five years,” Kring is saying, “the idea of broadcast will be gone.”

“Right,” says Lindelof. “Instead of watching Heroes on NBC, you’ll go to nbc.com and download the show to your device, and the show will be deleted as soon as you finish watching it — unless you pay $1.99; then you get audio commentary. You enhance it. It’s like building your Transformer and putting little rocket ships on the side.” …

In the analog era, such efforts might have fallen under the soulless rubric of “cross-promotion,” but today they have evolved and mashed up into a new buzzword: “transmedia.” The difference is that cross-promotion has nothing to do with developing or expanding an established narrative. A Happy Days lunch box, in other words, does nothing to advance the story of Fonzie’s personal journey.

While such merchandising campaigns still exist, transmedia offers one big plot twist: X-ray vision. Today’s audience, steeped in media and marketing, sees through crass ploys to cash in. So the Geek Elite are taking a different approach. Rather than just shill their products in various media, they are building on new and emerging platforms to expand their mythological worlds. Viewers watch an episode of Heroes, then follow one character’s adventure in a graphic novel. They tune in to Lost, then explore the island’s twisted history in an online game. It is this “transmedia storytelling,” as Alexander puts it, that ultimately lures the audience into buying more stuff — today, DVDs; tomorrow, who knows what.

The article offers a pretty good snapshot of where the industry’s thinking is at in terms of transmedia properties and certainly offers an up date on my discussion of The Matrix in Convergence Culture.

This week, the New York Times reported on the plans to release a suplamentary dvd to more or less coincide with the release of the Watchmen movie next year:

The second film, tentatively called Tales of the Black Freighter, follows a side Watchmen storyline about a shipwreck and will arrive in stores five days after the main movie rolls out in theaters. The DVD will also include a documentary-style film called Under the Hood that will delve into the characters’ backstories.

Those of you who have read Alan Moore’s original graphic novel will recognize both of those titles as materials which are complexly woven into the narrative, offering us a glimpse into the way popular culture might have evolved — towards pirate comics — in a world where superheroes are real (Black Freighter) and a sense of the ways superheroes might be covered as cultural celebrities (Under the Hood). As the producers have striped down Watchmen for the screen, they have pushed these elements to the margins. In another era, they would have been left on the cutting room floor, but instead, they are becoming the backbone of Warner Brother’s transmedia strategy for the film.

The article also noted:

In addition, the studio plans a dozen 22- to 26-minute Webisodes to help make the complex story easier for the uninitiated to digest. Called “The Watchmen Motion Comic,” it will be a panel-by-panel slide show of the graphic novel narrated by an actor.

Keep in mind that Warner Brothers was the studio which sponsored the Wachowski Brothers’s transmedia development around the Matrix franchise.

All of this suggests how central transmedia entertainment has become to the thinking inside Hollywood today. So it is great to have a chance to share with my readers some insights from a real master of this practice.

Talking Transmedia: An Interview with Starlight Runner’s Jeff Gomez (Part Two)

How important do you think hardcore fans are to the success of genre entertainment? How do such fans create value around your properties?

As exemplified by the efforts of many recent genre producers, the cultivation, validation and celebration of fandom are vital to the success of any genre rollout. It’s interesting to note that two major genre releases in 2007, The Seeker: The Dark is Rising and The Golden Compass were both released with either limited or no transmedia components designed to immerse a potential fan base into the fantastical worlds of the films–no one was indoctrinated into the fiction–and both failed spectacularly.

Genre fans are passionate. Passion is the least expensive and most powerful driver behind any endeavor. Passion can punch holes through the wall of noise that is media culture, it generates curiosity and leadership, and the passion of a base of fans can help to keep producers and creatives “honest”–forcing them to remain true to the core messages, themes, mythology and characterizations of the story world. Passion generates value, because it draws attention and is often quite infectious.

What do you see as the downsides of generating such passionate consumers?

On the other hand, passion can be blind and judgmental. Fan zeal can threaten to “box in” a property, potentially stunting its growth. It can generate negative “buzz” around a project, which can leak into media coverage and plant seeds of doubt in the general audience base. Despite the attachment of a well known director in George Miller for Warner Bros. upcoming Justice League super hero production, for example, many fans have expressed doubt around casting and story issues that have leaked to the fan media. These have raised concerns in the studio strong enough to postpone the start of production until after the Writers Guild of America strike ended. The delay allowed for the production to take a lower profile and for script and casting choices to be amended. Whether or not this will help the production remains to be seen.

As some of these genres have become more commercially viable, the San Diego Comic Con has emerged as an important media marketplace. Can you speak to the role this gathering plays in the marketing of your properties?

Comic Con International in San Diego plays a more and more pivotal role in heralding, marketing and launching new genre efforts. In the midst of negotiating with executives at The Walt Disney Company for a job working with one of their largest franchises, Starlight Runner took them on a tour of the Comic Con exhibition floor. Many of the “worlds” we helped to develop were on spectacular display: Mattel’s Hot Wheels universe, the fantasy realms of Magic: The Gathering, high priced back issues of Valiant Comics, and the announcements for new video games and comic books based on Turok and our own “Team GoRizer” at Disney’s own booth! Suffice to say, a deal was quickly sealed!

Each year, Comic Con attracts well over 100,000 “gatekeepers,” fans of niche, cult or genre entertainment who make it their business to spread the word about the newest and coolest content to their friends and acquaintances both in their home communities and on the Internet. It used to be that one of these gatekeepers would have a circle of five to ten contacts back home to whom he or she would convey what was best about the convention. Now in the age of social networking and pop culture web portals, that number has multiplied exponentially. Add to this the mass media coverage given to Comic Con and content producers can reach untold millions through it.

The Christian community might be read as another kind of niche public for media properties — often alienated from mainstream content, deeply interested in providing alternative forms of entertainment for their families. What are the challenges of reaching these consumers, and can their tastes be reconciled by the demands of the mass audience?

Like any niche audience, the Christian community wants to enjoy entertainment that reflects their values and sensibilities. Interestingly, the classic Hollywood ethos reflects Judeo-Christian values: good usually wins out over evil, the hero triumphs after embracing the just and moral path. The problem is actually rooted in how the studios choose to communicate with them.

When Disney and Walden Media reached out to the Christian community to promote The Chronicles of Narnia, what was interesting was that this was a property filled with supernatural beings, witches, magic and violence. However, the studio played up the film’s allegory as evocative of the stories and themes of the New Testament.

Quite the opposite happened with The Golden Compass, another children’s film that also portrayed supernatural beings, witches, magic and violence. Instead of bravely strategizing a plan and communicating to the Christian community that the film could be used as a tool to discuss vital issues such as faith, false prophets and the abuse of religious power, New Line Cinema chose to downplay those elements of the film and avoid contact with religious leaders. The result was suspicion and distaste for the film among smaller Christian organizations that leaked into the mass media, creating unease with the film among the general population. The film failed in North America.

In short, the entertainment industry is still grappling with how to properly market broad content to the Christian community niche, let alone content specifically designed to appeal to their personal experience.

To extend the religious metaphor of “cult media,” do you see cult fans as playing a particularly important role in proselytizing for the content, “evangelizing” the brand?

Fan “apostles” often play an instrumental role in spreading the word and drawing attention to niche content. Many studios and publishers of genre entertainment are currently developing programs to secure relationships with the fan community (or various subsections thereof). While this is not easy to do and often brings on headaches large companies would rather avoid, it is becoming inevitable. After all, without evangelists, how can new religions (or tentpole franchises) spread?

Some have suggested that media producers with strong niche followings might be able to develop alternative distribution models for their entertainment content, marketing their properties directly to the public through subscriptions or downloads, rather than negotiating with networks or film studios. How realistic do you think this scenario is within the current marketplace? What do you think are the obstacles of establishing such a direct relationship between producers and their fans?

There has never been a better time to explore and establish alternative distribution models for niche entertainment content, but these opportunities are still not easy to exploit and may not last forever. It takes a cocktail of money, talent, timing and pure luck to build a major head with direct digital distribution of entertainment content, particularly if your resources are limited compared with those of a Hollywood studio or entertainment firm.

Of course, we’ve seen recording artists (Coldplay), independent filmmakers (The Blair Witch Project) and amateur content producers (Ask a Ninja) do just that, but it’s still a long shot and remarkable resourcefulness is necessary to cut through the noise enough to generate global distribution that generates a reasonable return.

Starlight Runner views alternative distribution models as a means to launch a new property, particularly one with “cult” qualities, in an effort to build buzz, develop a fan base and establish proof of concept. This is a killer combination that can help producers leverage more equity and creative control over their properties after larger partners such as movie studios or media conglomerates move in.

The Nickelodeon smash TV series The Naked Brothers Band, for example, started out as a low-budget indie film making the rounds at small film festivals, before the producers established a web site that offered the film’s songs as downloads and sparked a modest but intensely loyal fan following. Nickelodeon took note and granted the production a sweet deal in return for the rights.

Even now, tools and models are being devised that will more readily enable niche content producers to connect directly with their potential audience. Fans want to participate and express themselves, and producers must accommodate them with structures that will allow for guided user-generated content, story material that dovetails with the current storylines set in-canon, and perhaps one day, the opportunity to touch and interact with the canon itself.

Talking Transmedia: An Interview With Starlight Runner’s Jeff Gomez (part one)

Jeff Gomez, the chief executive officer of Starlight Runner entertainment, spoke at Futures of Entertainment last fall as part of a panel discussion on Cult Media, which also included transmedia creator Danny Bilson, Heroes executive producer Jesse Alexander, and Gordon Tichell from Walden Media, the company which produces the Narnia films. Not surprisingly, given I was moderator, the session quickly became a geek out festival mostly centered around issues of transmedia entertainment. You can enjoy the podcast of the event here.

As we were preparing for the session, we distributed a set of questions to the speakers, some of which were covered during the panel, some of which were not. Gomez recently wrote to send me his further reflections on many of those questions in the hopes to continue public conversation around recent developments in transmedia entertainment.

Here’s a bio on Gomez:

As the Chief Executive Officer of Starlight Runner Entertainment, Jeff Gomez

is a leading creator of highly successful fictional worlds. He is an expert

at cross-platform intellectual property development and transmedia

storytelling, as well as at extending niche properties such as toys,

animation or video game titles into the global mass market.

After establishing himself in the tabletop adventure game industry, Jeff

helped to develop the super hero universe of Valiant Comics, adapting its

characters and storylines into videogames for Acclaim Entertainment. Jeff¹s

first transmedia effort was for the Wizards of the Coast trading card game

Magic: The Gathering, where he dramatized the mythology of the cards in an

elaborate storyline across a series of comic book titles, web sites and

videogames.

Jeff conceived and co-produced one of the most successful transmedia

storylines of the decade with Mattel’s Hot Wheels: World Race and Hot Wheels

Acceleracers comic books, video games, web content and animated series for

television. He has gone on to work with such blockbuster properties as

Pirates of the Caribbean and Fairies for The Walt Disney Company, James

Cameron¹s Avatar for 20th Century Fox, and Happiness Factory for The

Coca-Cola Company.

Jeff has also spoken at M.I.T.’s Futures of Entertainment conference and

given his seminar, Creating Blockbuster Worlds: Developing Highly Successful

Transmedia Franchises, to the Game Developers Conference, New York State Bar

Association, International Game Developers Association and the Producers

Guild of America, as well as to such corporations as Disney, Fox, Microsoft,

Coca-Cola, Scholastic, Wieden+Kennedy, and Hasbro.

Jeff Gomez can best be reached at jeff@starlightrunner.com.

Let’s start by examining the concept of “cult media.” What does this phrase mean to you, and do you think it accurately describes the kinds of projects you’ve worked on? Why or why not?

To me “cult media” is exemplified by the slow crumbling of traditional media content aimed at huge swathes of the population, down to the more contemporary approach of designing content to engage subsections of that population or even smaller “niches.”

My company Starlight Runner works on “cult media” in that we work on projects that already have mass appeal or have the potential to reach mass appeal, but what those projects always have to begin with is a specific genre appeal that almost guarantees an extremely loyal core “niche” audience.

Starlight Runner also consults with movie studios, comic book and fiction publishers, and videogame developers to take their niche or “cult” content and prepare it for extension across multiple media platforms. In this case, we are acting as transmedia storytellers, developing and producing “cult” properties for exposure to a much larger audience.

The idea of cult media historically referred to films that appealed to a fairly small niche of consumers. But many genres, which once were regarded as cult — fantasy, science fiction, superheroes — have emerged as increasingly mainstream. What’s changing? What accounts for the mainstreaming of niche media?

There are five factors that seem to be contributing to the “coming out” of cult media:

  1. Baby boomers and gen-X’ers weaned on the explosion of pop culture spurred by the proliferation of television and movies in the aftermath of World War II have come of age and taken control of the entertainment industry. Naturally, they have a strong desire to recreate what they loved and share it with others who’ve had similar cultural experiences.
  2. Genre product such as science fiction serials and horror films, which had been relegated to Saturday matinees and second or third billing in movie theaters, could now be given A-list treatment. The new moguls and visionaries could now apply top grade production value to this content, and hire marquee talent for it, secure in the knowledge that genre fare is more than likely to turn a profit. In the international market, a growing hunger for action and genre content could boost domestic failures into profitability.
  3. Attention to quality extended to storytelling. Filmmakers, comic book writers, genre novelists and their ilk were better educated and more interested in stories that conveyed better character development and stronger verisimilitude. Star Wars was fueled by the work of Joseph Campbell.
  4. Genre content became more reflective of the mood and politics of the time, and therefore resonated more powerfully with mass audiences. Note the nuclear spawned monsters of the 1950s, the “acid trip” sci-fi of the ’60s, the terrifying “evil children” of the early ’70s, the “gee whiz” hope ofStar Wars and Close Encounters later that decade, the political morass and moral ambiguity of Battlestar Galactica currently.
  5. Like no other time in history, devotees of this type of content have complete access to one another via the Internet. Fans whose imaginations are fired by these stories make a deep and lasting connection with them. They become “specialists,” intensely knowledgeable of the property, the way that sports fanatics memorize the accomplishments and statistics of their favorite teams. These fans become “apostles” for the property, devoting time, effort and creativity in celebrating the story and characters, collecting ephemera and licensed extensions of the brand, celebrating it with others of their ilk. They form the property’s core fan base, which in turn fuels the continued success of the brand.

What do you see as the challenges of generating content that appeals to both niche and mass publics at the same time?

Like any good story, content designed for genre-lovers or niche markets should contain strong characters, evocative issues and clear, accessible throughlines. Story arcs must be designed from the outset to feel complete and deliver on their promise.

Also importantly, the audience needs to be able to appreciate and enjoy the content as it is presented solely on the driving platform of the trans-media production. With Heroes, for example, the driving platform is the television series. Much of the success of the franchise hinges on the audience finding the show exciting, intelligible and complete.

What the producers of Heroes are doing quite well is in providing fans of the show with a far more expansive experience of the fictional universe of the show on the complementary or orbiting platforms of the trans-media production. This additional content is presented in the form of web sites, graphic novels, prose fiction, etc., and this material all takes place within the canon of the Heroes chronology. So fans are provided with the level of depth, verisimilitude, sophistication and complexity that they crave, but casual viewers are not required to seek it out to enjoy the show.

When the two approaches cross over, we have seen the potential for pop culture phenomena. The media’s coverage of “The Lost Experience” for example, conveyed the fact that there was a greater architecture to the fictional universe of the Lost TV series than was originally suspected. The excitement generated by the trans-media components of the show helped to boost broad interest in it. The same can be said of similar approaches for both the Batman: The Darknight and Cloverfield feature films.

Also powerful on the home front, as families gather to watch Heroes, a teen fan of the show might recognize a peripheral character making her first appearance on a given night’s episode as one he originally read about in the online comic. So our fan takes on the role of gatekeeper for the show, filling in family and friends on the backstory of the character, and giving them a greater appreciation of the show with his “exclusive” knowledge, and making the whole experience more entertaining.

In short, depth and complexity are built around the show, rather than weighing it down by presenting it front and center.

What kinds of trade-offs have to occur in order to broaden the appeal of media properties?

Studios and entertainment companies are now learning that fewer and fewer trade-offs are necessary to broaden the appeal of niche or “cult media” properties. Contemporary audiences are now primed for high quality genre entertainment across all media platforms. So long as marketing efforts place focus on a driving platform, the launch platform and complementary content can be used to build anticipation, educate audience “gatekeepers” about the property, and enrich the overall experience.

There may be trade-offs, however, when it comes to the level of depth and complexity of the core property and how interdependent the driving platform content is with complementary content. The Wachowski Brothers ran into difficulty with the mass audience reception of the second and third Matrix films, because the films were hard to understand without a working familiarity with the characters and storylines of the orbiting platforms (graphic novels, video games, direct-to-video animation). Hence, at this point in the evolution of transmedia storytelling, it is still vital to present a full and complete entertainment experience within each component of the rollout.

It should be noted that niche productions such as alternate reality games don’t tend to bother with these distinctions, trusting the sophistication and intense loyalty of their audience to follow plotlines and story nodes back and forth across multiple media platforms almost indiscriminately. I believe that some day soon, web-based alternate reality games and experiences will evolve into much more accessible and dynamic productions, playing a vital role in transmedia storytelling.

What are the risks involved in alienating the base of your audience?

Franchises are built on the energy and loyalty of their hardcore fan bases. While these bases are often a fraction of the size of the total audience, they are indispensable, because they are vocal, passionate and active. A tiny fraction of the genre television series Jericho sent tons of jars of peanuts to the network that had just cancelled the program–moving them to reinstate the series. A small group of fans that gathered at conventions and shared amateur publications centered on the original Star Trek series managed to bridge the period between that series’ cancellation and the Star Wars-inspired relaunch of the franchise in the late 1970s.

When the producers of the television series Enterprise publicly stated that the show was being designed for a much wider audience than previous incarnations of Star Trek, and exhibited this intention by altering the shows music cues, pandering to sexual titillation and (perhaps most egregiously) ignoring at will the established continuity and thematic tone of the fictional universe, the result was a gradual erosion of the franchise’s core fan base. Without the approval and loyalty of “Trekkers” there would be no reason for the greater audience to stick around.

The original Crow graphic novel and feature film generated an extremely loyal fan base. But with the second feature, producers chose to ignore the fictional rules and tenets set down by the original work, and so the franchise experienced the first of what would become many fractures. Dubbing the property an “anthology franchise” that could be wildly altered based on the vision of individual artists and storytellers, the producers continued to build and deconstruct The Crow into smaller and smaller pieces, each with its own dwindling following. They chose to place the needs of their artists above the integrity of the mythology of the universe–a mythology that the fan base deeply cared about. The property now languishes in limbo.

“I Like to Sock Myself in the Face”: Reconsidering “Vulgar Modernism” (Part Four)

Forms Stretched to Their Limits

In this intensified comic atmosphere, it should be no surprise that bodies – whether that of live comic performers or cartoon characters – were reduced to, in a phrase associated with Jack Coles, “forms stretched to their limits.” Vaudeville’s performer centered mode of production and its emphasis on constant novelty and heterogeniety pushed its stars to develop a range of performance skills and to exploit as many of them in any given performance as possible. This push towards intensification resulting in such specialties as the protean or quick change artist who might transform his identity dozens of times in the course of a performance, trying to play all of the parts in the enactment of a Shakespearean drama or an adaptation of War and Peace. It also resulted in the tradition of the eccentric dancer, whose performance would include back-flipping acrobatics and rubber legged dance moves, which often defy our normal assumptions about human anatomy. One can see remarkable examples of this tradition in the preserved segments from Spike Jone’s TV work.

In “I Like to Sock Myself in the Face,” Peter James, a regular member of Jone’s stock company, sings a rapid patter song which proclaims the masochistic pleasures of self-directed violence. The clown, dressed in an over-sized checkered suit which defies every advice ever given about what to wear on early black and white television, races onto the stage, hurls himself up the curtains, bobs up and down in rhythm to the music, before proceeding to slap and kick himself in the face, run circles around the bandleader, winding up his legs and kicking in all directions, and turning back flips. He flings himself on all fours, bouncing up and down on the floor. All of the above is performed live by the breathlessly enthusiastic entertainer and unveiled for us in a series of long takes which make it clear that there is no trickery involved.

Such a performance might well be called “cartoonish” and that’s precisely the point – it offers us the illusion that a live performer’s body may be as elastic and protean as that of a cartoon or comic book character. There is little separating Peter James’s proclaimed joy in socking himself in the face and the prolonged sequences of Wolfie’s equally intense gyrations and contortions in response to Red Hot Riding Hood in Avery’s cartoons. Wolfy gets shown going stiff as a board, stretching his arm across the auditorium to pull his beloved off the stage, banging himself in the face with hammers, whistling and pounding on the table, popping his eyes out of his head, and shooting himself in his desperate and uncontrollable expressions of erotic desire. These hyberbolic reactions became the primary source of comedy for extended sequences in the film and such displays are often what people remember most vividly about Avery’s cartoons.

Art Spiegelman finds a similar fascination with hyperbolic extensions of the human body in Jack Cole and his most famous creation, Plastic Man:

“Plastic Man had all the crackling intensity of the life force transferred to paper….Plas literally embodied the comic book form: its exuberant energy, its flexibility, its boyishness, and its only partially sublimated sexuality.”

The pleasure of reading a Cole comic was watching his protagonist stretch and pull in all directions, changing shape and identity at will, often anchored only by our recognition of the red, black, and yellow coloring of his costume. In yet another analogy to modernist art, Spiegelman argues that the character “personified George Bataille’s notion of the body on the brink of dissolving its borders,” suggesting a sexual charge to images of Plas’s bulbous head at the end of his extending, flaccid or erect neck, or at the suggestion that any body part might take any shape at a moment’s notice.

The same might be said of the characters depicted by Basil Wolverton, whom art critic Doug Harvey has linked to a much larger tradition of grotesque caricature, again drawing on references to surrealism, expressionism, and dada:

“Wolverton’s obsessively detailed images of impossibly distended organs, alarming proliferations of extra limbs, seething oceans of twisted, sagging,and diseased integument, and traumatic and impractical fusions of man and machine in which man inevitably got the painful end of the stick…. His work has a singularity of focus and vertiginous sense of exhilaration that verges on nausea, and it has continued to be vital and grown increasingly relevant, from the days of vaudeville through to the post-McLuhan mediascape. And if it makes your sister puke, it’s done its job.”

Spigelman has emphasized the kinetic qualities of Cole’s artwork, tracing the ways that Plas moves from left to right, top to bottom, from panel to panel, forcing the reader to scan his eyes rapidly from place to place within the frame: “

Plastic Man’s S-curved body …loops around one pedestrian in the distance and extends between two lovers about to kiss – lipstick traces are on his elongated neck as he passes them – to swoop up between an old man’s legs like an enormous penis wearing sunglasses and stare into his startled face.”

Wolverton achieves a similarly kinetic quality within single images as mouths, eyelids, hair, wrinkles, all seem on the verge of drooping and sagging, like so much meat ready to fall off the bone or where a man might tied his neck into a knot to avoid the temptations of drink or another might attach a fan to his nose to disperse the stinch of his buddy’s garlicky breath. One character may be all mouth, another all nose, another might have four or five chins, each so butt ugly that we stare at the page like rubber neckers at a car accident, unable to take our eyes away even as we feel mounting disgust.

This gagging sensation is suggested by the moment at the end of the above quote where Harvey breaks from the sanctifying language of the art critic to acknowledge a much more adolescent and masculine pleasure in watching his sister’s retching. For the most part, the ‘vulgar modernists’ were misbehaving schoolboys, running amuck, seeking to shock their teachers, mothers, and sisters with their willingness to transgress norms of taste and decorum.

There was an inherent tension between all of this frantic activity and any sense of spatial orientation. Jack Cole’s Plas zigzags across the page. Wolverton’s Powerhouse Pepper makes expressive use of speed lines which seem to swoop upon us from all sides. Peter James races, leaps and tumbles around every corner of the stage. Olsen and Johnson walk through a series of movie sets with each match on action revealing them wearing a different period costume. A chase scene in Tex Avery’s Who Killed Who shows multiple versions of the same characters racing around different parts of the space at the same instant. Another gag shows the detective falling down a trap door in the bottom of the frame and then falling into the same shot from above. Don’t expect spatial relations to make sense, don’t expect the world to cohere, just sit back and watch as they rip the screen apart and put it back together again.

We can celebrate their formal inventiveness , the giddy excitement created by such unfettered movements, their expressive graphics, yet we also have to acknowledge how much of this humor was directed at women — literally in the case of Avery’s representations of the wolf’s pyrotechnic desire or figuratively, in the ways that the works associate all of that ballet, opera, and classical piano music we’ve described with a feminized realm of high culture. In a world where men display phallic energy through their ability to extend their bodies in all directions, women are often depicted as fixed and static – witness the use of rotoscoping to give Red a much more realistic appearance than Wolfy in the Avery cartoons. There are exceptions, such as Martha Raye’s character in Hellzapoppin who shows an ability to freeze frame and reverse the action at one in one particular musical number. Yet, for the most part, male characters enjoy much greater freedom of movement and fluidity of identity. One could argue that such male-centered pleasures are consistent with the analogies to modernism, given how often, say, critics have pointed to the masculine assumptions which shaped artists as diverse as Pablo Picasso and Jackson Pollack.

Indeed, high and popular artists may be complicit in reinforcing this particular set of gendered relations. Consider the case of Lena the Heyena, Wolverton’s most famous work. The drawing was produced in response to a contest hosted by Al Capp’s Little Abner and judged by a panel that included Frank Sinatra, Boris Karloff, and Salvador Dali. The image won out over those produced by such comic book rivals as Jack Cole and Carl Banks, first appearing in Abner and later recycled for a famous early cover for Mad Magazine. Here, high meets low on equal terms, with Dali recognizing and rewarding the “surrealistic” elements in Wolverton’s decisively more lowbrow work.

From Mad to ‘Sick’

We should not be surprised, then, that alongside Dali or Hoberman, the most famous patron of the “vulgar modernists” was Hugh Heffner who sought to recruit many of those discussed here, including Jack Cole, Harvey Kurtzman, and Will Elder, to work for Playboy. While the temptation is to talk about the “no holds barred” nature of their postwar work, we can see the kinds on invisible constraints that shaped their work if we look at the much more sexually explicit but formally similar work Elder and Kurtzman did on “Little Annie Fannie” for Playboy a decade or so later. Biographers describe the cartoonists’ discomfort with the more explicit imagery and subject matter Hef expected them to produce for his men’s magazine, even as he provided them more creative freedom to fill panels with “chicken fat” gags, to introduce intertextual elements, or to shatter the frame borders. (The recent reprinting of Little Annie Fannie includes an extensive set of annotations in the back trying to explain the numerous topical references that ran through the series. ) In the end, we don’t know whether the sexuality was sublimated in their postwar works or whether the sexual explicitness of their later work was forced in their efforts to remain relevant to the sensibilities of a different generation.

Basil Wolverton’s grotesques informed later underground comicbook artists like R. Crumb. A famous portrait of Crumb, his legs twisted and tangled, bears unmistakable similarities to a Wolverton drawing showing a similar contorted male figure. Crumb would give the grotesque elements of Wolverton’s work a political charge: Crumb used images of contorted human figures to push back against what he and others in the counterculture saw as the state’s repressive control over their bodies, offering up much more aggressive representations of racial difference as a challenge to a sexist and racist society (in effect, taking the ‘innocent’ ethnic types found in the earlier work and shoving it back into the shocked faces of a generation which had been too complacent about racial inequalities). Reading the “vulgar modernists” alongside Crumb, one seems just how good natured and complacent they were, how much they observed limits and respected norms, even as they sought to enact their disruption and transgression.

While the comedy rests on our acceptance that they hold nothing sacred, there is, in fact, much that remains sacred and protected within the humor of the 1940s and 1950s. While Kurtzman and Gaines faced rebuke before the Kefauver committee for their role in creating E.C. horror comics, Mad was seen as a safer alternative to which they retreated in the aftermath. If it was not exactly exhaulted, it never faced government scrutiny. None of these clowns or comic artists were blacklisted during the McCarthy era; their formal transgressiveness and sublimated eroticism would have felt much more comfortable in the context of their times while overt ideological critique would have been much less acceptable.

Hoberman was drawn to these artist at a time when politically engaged filmmakers and cultural critics saw reflexivity as a way out of the illusionism of classical Hollywood cinema, seeing shattering textual codes and conventions as the beginning of a different kind of relationship to spectators. When they looked at the films of Tex Avery, say, they could find many examples of this kind of formal transgression. Avery’s films sent characters flying outside the frame or showed them straddling a line separating black and white and technocolor. One character in Batty Baseball (1944) stops the picture and demands that they go back and show the lion roar and provide opening credits, while the dog begs for the picture to end after being beaten mercilessly by Screwball Squirrel.

The character at the start of Who Killed Who is reading a book “based on the cartoon of the same title,” turns to the audience, and explains that if the cartoon is anything like the book, he’s about to be murdered. Screwball Squirrel lifts up the bottom of the frame and takes a peak into the next scene to see what he’s supposed to do next. And we could go on and on.

As Dana Polan notes in an essay principally focused on another “vulgar modernist” text, Chuck Jones’ Duck Amuck (1953), there is a difference between reflexivity as a formal practice designed to defamiliarize various textual codes and conventions and reflexivity as a political practice designed to critique real world institutions and practices. One takes pleasure in pulling the rug out from Hollywood conventions, while the other teaches us a new way to see the world or offers us new perspectives on the realm beyond the movie house.

Reading Mad magazine taught the coming generation to be skeptical of political authorities or the influence of Madison Avenue, but they would have to push its humor up several notches before they could find a mode of comedy well suited to the politics of the counterculture. These artists paved the way for everything that came yet they might have been the last generation of American humorists who could transgress wildly and yet still hold a place within the consensus culture. They were, in short, marginal but not outside the frame of mainstream culture.

From a critical perspective, then, the question is whether we should allow ideological criteria to always trump aesthetic ones. Modernism, in the high art sense, was certainly divided between artists, or even works within the body of the same artist’s careers, which were more focused on formal innovation and ideological critique, and we have found a way to accommodate both strands in the cannon of western art. Cannons often get defined in terms of the lasting impressions and continued influence of an artist’s body of work and by that criteria, these artists continue to exert a strong influence on our culture down to the present day. As Doug Harvey writes in regard to Wolverton,

“generations of comic creators, from Will Elder, Gahan Wilson, R. Crumb and Gary Panter to Peter Bagge, Drew Friedman, and Charles Burns, have been influences by his meticulous technique and pictorial audacity. Artists from the world of ‘fine’ or ‘high’ art, such as Mike Kelley, Jim Shaw, Kenny Scharf, Peter Saul, Jim Nutt, and many others turned Wolverton’s pop-culture monstrosities into museum-worthy artifacts.”

Similarly, Tex Avery’s influence is explicitly acknowledge through Jim Carrey’s performance in The Mask, through the opening sequences of Who Frame Roger Rabbit?, or throughout Tiny Tunes, Ren and Stimpy, and Animaniacs while it is hard to conceive of the world depicted in The Simpsons or South Park in the absence of Will Elder and Harvey Kurtzman. Hoberman’s essay ends with the suggestion that “what was once oppositional in vulgar modernism has largely been co-opted by the culture industry” (pointing to the then contemporary examples of Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman or Saturday Night Live.) I have argued the opposite here– that their containment within commercial culture worked to mute any overt political statements they might have made and that subsequent generations, following their example, have often pushed their transgressiveness much further. Perhaps these later works are consistent with Hoberman’s closing call for a “vulgar postmodernism” though I will leave to someone else the always thankless task of policing the borders between modernism and postmodernism. That these works are a living presence in our culture makes the project of revisiting Hoberman’s essay and reassessing this body of work that much more urgent.

We have been able to only start the project of a comparative or cross-media analysis of “vulgar modernism” and its place in American culture. Hoberman’s intuitive grouping of these artists proves rewarding whether we address the question in terms of biographical details or close textual analysis. These artists were fellow travelers in an artistic project none of them sought to articulate but all of them sought to demonstrate. It was a project whose roots could be traced back to vaudeville but which has been read in relation to a range of modern art movements, caught eternally in a struggle between competing claims of low-brow audacity and high art respectability. Calling them vulgar may oversell their transgressiveness, calling them modernist may overstate their avant garde impulses, yet the reality lies somewhere in the tension between the two. Whatever we want to say about them, they were artists who experimented with the basic building blocks of their respective media and taught a generation a new way to look at the world around them. When Powerhouse Pepper nonchalantly tells us in the final panel of a rather freakish comic story that certain specified pages were a dream sequence, when Startchie explains to a friend that the hearts flying around his paramour’s head might mean simply platonic friendship in “cartoon language,” they depict a world whose characters (and through extension, their readers) understand themselves as being constructed through recognized artistic conventions. When, in Symphony in Slang, Avery constructs a whole film around literalized metaphors, then we can see him inviting us to reflect on the role of language in shaping how we see the world.

And, yes, they could make your sister puke, your mother blush, and your teacher sputter. Not bad for a day’s work.

“I Like to Sock Myself in the Face”: Reconsidering “Vulgar Modernism” (Part Three)

Chicken Fat

If Avery used the opera singer and the magician as comic stand-ins for the text’s struggle between norms and their disruptions, the aesthetics of early Mad Magazine can be read through a more literal conflict, or at least competition, between writer Harvery Kurtzman and artist Will Elder for the attention of the reader. Elder liked to cram his panels with what he called “chicken fat,” extraneous gags and signs which pulled our attention from story actions in the foreground to seemingly irrelevant background details. As Elder explained, “chicken fat is the part of the soup that is bad for you, yet gives the soup its delicious pleasure.” For the most part, these background gags were Elder’s own additions, not dictated by Kurtzman’s script, though some have suggested Kurtzman increasingly created opportunities for such elements. At other times, the writer expressed frustration when these gags overwhelmed the basic building blocks of his narrative or upstaged his verbal humor. Readers would linger on a single panel, scanning for more comic elements, rather than following the forward momentum of the plot.

One frequent form of “chicken fat” were advertising signs or graphiiti, texts which often annotated the action or offered conflicting ideological perspectives on the events. Throughout Elder’s “Startchy,” (Mad, 12) background details hint at a much harsher social milieu than depicted in the Archie Andrews comic books. Yet, Elder can not resist putting a Burma Shave rhyme on the butts of a series of background figures in one panel. A scene from “Shadow!” (Mad, 4), showing a young woman falling down a flight of stairs, places a different advertising slogan on each step, while the natives in “Ping Pong” (Mad, 6) defend themselves with the Blue Shield and Knights of Pythias icons, playing cards, board games, roulette wheel, and surf boards . Such images need not be consistent from frame to frame, as in “Sooperdooperman” (Mad, 4) where a different icon appears on the chest of battling caped crusaders, in each panel, further undermining any conception of a coherent or consistent fictional world.

Elder’s contemporary, Basil Wolverton, is similarly known for his use of background details and signs which distract us from the main action. Consider the range of different signs depicted on the cover of a single issue of Powerhouse Pepper: “Fighters: Don’t Mope on the Rope,” “Seconds don’t count. The Referee does!,” “Don’t Pile in this aisle!,” “Tonight: Powerhouse Pepper vs. Doug Slugmug,” “Next Week: Rush Crushmush vs. Bopper Sloppermopper,” “If you must smoke, light up with genuine boxing matches.” A heckler from the crowd asks via a word balloon, “How’s to sell you life insurance?” while the protagonist is distracted from punching down his over-sized opponent by a shapely woman walking down the aisle. A semiotician would have a blast interpreting the various functions of such signs (promotional, regulatory, informative) within the fictional world as well as the ways that their language, especially the rhyming slang which was Wolverton’s trademark, become a source of pleasure well beyond any meaningful function they might serve within the depicted space.

Wolverton similarly deploys sound effects graphics as a source of pleasure in and of themselves, often using them to distract from rather than reinforce the main action. One illustrated essay. “Acoustics in the Comics,” captures the cartoonist’s fascinations with sound effects. Wolverton begins the essay describing his uncertainty as he tries to figure out the best way to graphically convey the sound of a horse stepping on someone’s head. Responding to critics of his often wild and crazy images, Wolverton embodies such criticisms through the figure of an editor who insists on “realistic” sound effects. Across a series of misadventures, he depicts the cartoonist as trying to identify the precise sounds required to represent a range of unlikely experiences, so that flup represents the sound of “dropping your uppers on a gob of putty,” Jworch as the sound of a safe falling on a man, Koyp as the noise a skin pore makes with it snaps shut upon contact with cold air, and soop as the sound of “a octopus tentacle slapping a bald bean” assuming the head is round (though it makes a “spoip” sound If the head is flat. These acoustic gags play upon the ways that Wolverton’s art refused to abide by realist or classical expectations, preferring to draw his readers in more zany and improbable directions.

Wolverton was interested in how wacky or improbably sounds might disrupt the norms of a classically constructed text; many of his best graphics engulf his frazzled protagonists with textual representations of their disruptive and distracting sonic surroundings. One representation of artists at work included the sounds of pens scratching on the sketchpad, of someone pulling on his hair, and the astonished response of critics and readers asked to make sense of what the artist is depicting. Another shows an anxious man trying to watch a movie surrounded by other patrons chomping popcorn, popping gum, and rocking in their chairs.

Corny Gag, Isn’t It?

Tex Avery’s cartoons similarly exploit our fascination with background details, though the linear nature of cinema makes it much harder for us to linger and savor such elements. (One probably has to watch Screwball Squirrel multiple times before you spot the painting of a fire hydrant hanging on the wall of the dog’s quarters.) Rather, they unfold in front of the camera, one gag at a time. Consider, a few examples, from his first MGM film, Blitz Wolf (1942).

A Good Humor truck appears alongside a tank brigade. A sign pops out of the top of a flame thrower promising “I don’t want to set the world on fire.” The Hitler-like Big Bad Wolf steps out of a truck which bears the label, “Der Fewer (Der Better),” and holds up a sign to the camera, “Go on and Hiss! Who cares!” (which gets pelted with tomatos by the picture house audience.) When the Wolf’s Der Mechanized Huffer Und Puffer blow the little pigs’s house down, it reveals a sign reading “Gone with the Wind” before the camera pans to show a second sign, “Corny Gag, isn’t it?” An endless pan up the barrel of an alied weapon pauses long enough to let us read the words on yet another sign, “Long darn thing, isn’t it?” and when the weapon fires, it whips out a graphic representing Japan and yet another sign drops down from off-screen space informing us that “Doolittle Dood it!” Again and again, such signs destabilize our relations to the represented actions, sometimes suggesting that the characters are themselves aware that they are appearing within a cartoon which we are currently watching (as in the wolf’s direct address to the audience) and to which we may respond (as in hurled fruit) and other times speaking on behalf of an unseen narrator, who feels compelled to comment on the depicted actions (including labeling gags as “corny”).

Avery also often based gags on the disjunction between sound and images. Consider three examples from Screwball Squirrel. In the first, Screwball closes the door to a phone booth before letting loose with a prolonged raspberry, a sequence designed to call attention to the act of censorship which represses some of his more bodily humor. (This particular rude noise is specifically prohibited in the Production Code). In the second, the camera pulls back from the canine antagonist rolling down the hill in a barrel to show what we might have first read as non-diegetic musical accompaniment as having a source in the fiction: Screwball is making appropriate sounds using drums, timpani, and bird whistles. At another point, as the dog relentlessly chases the squirrel, we begin to hear repeated noises on the soundtrack and the image gets caught into a loop, which suggests the recycling of stills that go on routinely in animated shorts. The image freezes, the Squirrel steps away, hits the needle of a phonograph, gets the music on track, and then, steps back into his place in the chase. In all three cases, Avery refuses to allow us to take the relations between sound and images for granted. Like Jones and Wolverton, Avery sees noise as the source of comic disruptions of the well constructed texts, finding pleasure in the breakdown of normal codes and conventions.

Jokes On Jokes On Jokes

Terry Gilliam has described what he values most about Will Elder’s work: “the way he filled every inch of the thing with, just stuff….jokes on jokes on jokes.” Such visual clutter and comic density is especially visible in the expanded panels which open many of Elder’s Mad parodies. One such panel for “Is This Your Life?” (Mad, 24) tries to engulf all of 1950s American culture, into a single crammed and cramped image, including fictional characters (the Lone Ranger, Donald Duck), news casters (Edward R. Murrow) and political personalities (Nikita Khrushev, Richard Nixon), television and film stars (Groucho Marx, Bing Crosby, Marilyn Monroe), and brand icons (Aunt Jemima, The Smith Brothers, the Quaker Oats man, Snap, Crackle, and Pop), on and on. The opening of “Starchie,” shows Blondie and Little Orphan Annie as another two students attending Riverdale High, while Annie carries a textbook, “Freud is a Fraud by Freed” which pulls us into another discursive field altogether.

Such plays with intertextual references are also common to the work of Tex Avery (see Who Killed Who, 1943, where Santa Clause pops out of a closet and pulverizes the protagonist for failing to respect a sign warning him not to open the door before Xmas) or in Hellzapoppin (where Johnson bumps into a sled marked Rosebud and mumbles that he thought they had burned that thing or where the Frankenstein monster pops out of the audience and hurls Martha Raye back on stage during the disrupted ballet sequence described earlier.) All of this suggests that what Hoberman described as the “encyclopedic” nature of Frank Tashlin’s comedy, “an elaborately cross-referenced Bartlett’s of mass media quotations”[p.34] or the “collage-like” qualities of Will Elder’s comics [p.37] might be extended to describe the tradition as a whole. These artists borrowed freely across media, genres, modalities, and cultural hierarchies.

Moreover, these artists saw visual density as a source of pleasure in and of itself. Often, the specific details are less funny than the sense of their accumulation, of so many unlikely things occurring in the same space at the same time. Consider Hoberman’s description of the opening image of “Ping Pong,”(Mad, 6) Elder’s parody of King Kong:

“a giant slobbering ape towering above the mass of screaming humanity that flees before it on vehicles ranging from flying carpets to pogo sticks. Although the overall effect is monumentally static, the image yields a dozen miniature emblems of exaggerated panic: one man is running with a bathtub clutched around his middle, another’s eyes have just popped from his sockets, someone else appears to have plunged his hand through the back of the head in front of him so that it emerges, flailing, through its mouth. Meanwhile, Ping – brushing off the scaffolding that has suspended itself from his underarm in an attempt to plaster a ‘Post No Bills’ sign across his torso – is being attacked by a cannon firing puffed rice, a parachutist with a peashooter, a machine-gunner suspended in a diaper that is carried by a stork, and an army helicopter whose rear propeller has unobtrusively pulverized a portion of the frame line.”

(p.37) This dense image seems appropriate for a post-war era where critics were commenting on the struggle of Madison Avenue executives to grab our attention in an increasing noisy and distracting visual landscape. We can’t take it all in. No two readers see the same thing. And indeed part of the pleasure is the promise of comic effects beyond comprehension.

The Hell sequence at the start of Hellzapoppin is as visually dense as anything Elder ever created with acrobats leaping and flying in every direction, with people walking in between jugglers hurling flying sticks back and forth, with elements thrust into the frame from every possible off-screen space, and with gag elements appearing and then vanishing again with no real explanation. The introduction of Olsen and Johnson gets heralded by a menagerie of chickens, ducks, sheep, goats, and dogs, in a scene which includes everything but the kitchen sink (which, have no fear, gets brought in for comic effect in one of the film’s later scenes.) At the risk of a bad pun, this “devil may care” attitude reflects a sense of old vaudeville, burlesque, and joke book gags, being pulled out of moth balls, for one last play, with everyone involved recognizing how tired or hokey these devices may be individually but hoping that if they throw enough things at the screen at once something will produce a laugh or a sense of wonderment. And when the word play gets too bad, one can just step outside of the joke altogether: “corny, isn’t it?” These comic artists flag their jokes the way Babe Ruth point out his homeruns: we know where they are going to go but it’s still amazing to watch them get there.

“I Like to Sock Myself in the Face”: Reconsidering “Vulgar Modernism” (Part Two)

A Comparative Perspective

Hoberman’s most important contribution is the way that his essay takes artists who are often discussed as idiosyncratic within their own medium and reads them collectively and comparatively as part of a larger artistic project that took shape across and between media in the post-war period. There is still a lot we do not know about these artists and how they might be related to each other, but it is increasingly clear that Hoberman’s intuitive sense of their fit with each other reflects some behind the scenes collaborations. Let’s take for example the musician Spike Jones. Jordan R. Young’s biography of Jones, The Man Who Murdered Music, traces his migrations across different media (stage, radio, live action and animated cinema, comics, television, and records) as well as his collaborations with a range of other artists often associated with ‘vulgar modernism’: Jones sought advice from Tex Avery and Frank Tashlin on gags for his various film and television performances, contributed material to Ernie Kovacs’ television series, and published pieces in early Mad magazine. All signs are that these artists knew each other socially and professionally, were informed by each other’s work, drew on the same aesthetic roots, and in every other sense, constituted what we might describe as a circle. They did not adopt a shared label or issue manifestos to describe their motivations. Basil Wolverton, for example, did speak, tongue in check, of himself as belonging to the “spaghetti and meatball” school of art, a term which reflected his own low-brow aspirations and to the particular way in which he drew flesh and hair, but this term never extended to the others in this circle.

Over the past decade or so, each of the artists associated with “vulgar modernism” have undergone a rediscovery with new books published on Will Elder and Jack Cole, a recent coffee table book reprinting sketches and published works by Basil Wolverton, and the reissue of some long-lost television and radio performances of Spike Jones on dvd. This essay draws heavily on this new material to reconsider the Vulgar Modernists, attempting to offer a more systematic mapping of their shared aesthetic vision. I will define what they had in common and why it is productive to draw comparisons between works produced across such a broad array of different media. For the moment, I am accepting Hoberman’s ‘vulgar modernism’ as an inherited and problematic term, which reflects the ways a generation of critics has talked about these works I write this essay in the hopes of sparking further evaluation rather than making a definitive statement. My focus is going to be on Tex Avery, Spike Jones, Olsen and Johnson, Will Elder, Jack Coles, and Basil Wolverton, but for space considerations, I am not taking on Bob and Ray, Ernie Kovacs, Frank Tashlin, and many others who would also belong in a more thorough discussion of vulgar modernism. My focus here is primarily formal, though there are important ideological questions, having to do with their representations of race, gender, sexuality, wartime propaganda and postwar advertising, censorship and regulation and so forth, which will need to be confronted in any larger discussion. In short, this essay opens a can of worms, hoping more people will pay attention to these artists and their contributions to American culture. But then, comedy is always messy business.

Cartoonus Interruptus

Enough throat-clearing. Let’s begin with a consideration of one of the emblematic moments from Tex Avery’s oeuvre, the opening sequence from Screwball Squirrel. The streetwise protagonist highjacks “the picture” from his cloying counterpart, Sammy. Sammy’s big eyes, fluttering eyelashes, baby talk, coy gestures, and sentimentalized music stands in sharp contrast to Screwball’s aggressive manners, broad gestures, nasally voice, slangy language, elastic body, and slapstick gags. Sammy and all of his “cute little furry friends in the forest” are no match for Screwball who takes the more effeminate squirell behind a tree and knocks the crap out of him, turning to the camera to explain “you wouldn’t have liked that picture anyway” and promising “funny stuff” as soon as the phone rings.

Animation scholars have correctly identified this moment as a critical confrontation between two schools of American animation, though most of them have incorrectly aligned Sammy with Walt Disney, where-as read in the context of Tex Avery’s recent move from Warner Brothers to MGM to take over the animation division, it is more likely that the immediate reference point was to Harmon-Isling his predecessors. We can read the gesture as acknowledging the changing of the guards at Metro, much as Avery began his first MGM cartoon, Blitz Wolf, by offering a syncopated version of the MGM Lion’s opening roar. Both moments mark a repudiation of the past and signal that nothing was going to be taken seriously in the Avery era. There were, of course, other works by the Vulgar Modernists which more explicitly took on Disney, such as Will Elder’s “Mickey Rodent”, which opens with a panel depicting, among other thinks, the Fox walking a naked Pinocchio on a leash and Horace Horszneck being taken away by goons from Walt Dizzy because he went outside without his white gloves. Basil Wolvertoon created two sketches for his own amusement showing Mickey, Minnie, and Pluto confronting the kind of grotesque creatures which were his own stock and trade.

Perhaps more broadly, we can see these artists as taking on what Mark Langer has called the West Coast school of American animation with its middle class ideology, middlebrow taste, and classical aesthetic, in favor of a style which took nothing sacred, including the norms of classical cinema, and which saw itself as more “adult” at a time when American cinema in general was re-inventing itself to reflect the sensibilities of a post-war audience. Langer, himself, contrasts the West Coast school with the New York School, which he associates with the Fleischer Brothers. Many of the defining traits of the New York School carry over to this post-war generation of artists, including a focus on transgression of social norms, an emphasis on the artificiality of the characters and their drawn nature,” the use of “exaggerated effects” which call attention to the “artificial” and “manufactured” nature of cartoons, and a “polyphonic and heterogeneous” mixture of elements.

Many of the ‘vulgar modernists”, however, come from the middle parts of the country, not from the coastal cities, and fell outside both urban sophistication and middle class propriety. Yet, like the Fleischer Brothers, their work was informed through borrowings from the vaudeville tradition where so many of them got their start. Indeed, there is a long tradition of confusing the kinds of transgressions found in vaudeville with devices associated with modernist distanciation, but it’s worth remembering that the devices are deployed here to very different effect: to intensify rather than diminish our emotional experience.

We might understand the opening of Screwball Squirrel in relation to a widespread vaudeville trope, the interrupted act. In another essay, which traces this motif across Buster Keaton’s film career, I describe the functions this device played in variety entertainment: “

The interrupted performance was a common act structure within the vaudeville tradition, seeming to hold open the prospect of onstage action as spontaneous, unrehearsed, improvisational. Vaudeville sought to maintain the illusion – and it was only partially an illusion – that the audience’s response shaped the performance. In a theatrical tradition described by one Chicago critic as ‘the field of the expert,’ there was a certain pleasure in watching a performance go awry, witnessing events disrupt and threaten the performer’s mastery over stagecraft, only to see order restored once again.”

Such moments enact the tensions between narrative and spectacle or between normality and transgressions which are central to this school of comedy. We take pleasure in the disruptions and interruptions even as we hope for order to be restored.

In their stage show, Hellzappopin, Olsen and Johnson took this principle of the interrupted performance to the absolute limits, resulting in a show which was able to sustain the longest run of any Broadway production up until that point on the promise of the unexpected and the spontaneous: “

During Hellzapoppin, the audience had bananas, beans, ‘pottie-seats,’ eggs, and live chickens hurled at them; loud shots exploded; planted hecklers raised a rumpus; a ticket scalper cavorted up and down the aisles with tickets for a rival show; a clown tried to extricate himself from a straightjacket for the show’s duration; an elderly woman, outraged that her dress had been lifted by a trick gust of air from under the stage, attacked the entire cast with her umbrella…A woman persisted in bellowing ‘Oscar, Oscar’; the audience was bombarded with rubber snakes and spiders; and a whirling madness of cacophonous pandemonium and blatant boorishness engulfed the theater.”

Universal brought the production to the screen as one of the last gasps of the 1930s anarchistic comedy tradition, resulting in what Hoberman described as “an alternative universe as might have been scripted by Victor Shklovsky under the influence of mescaline.” The opening sequence literally pulls the floor out from under a high class musical number, sending a chorus line dressed in fine evening clothes and singing about heaven, falling gracelessly towards the pits of hell. The film concludes with Olsen and Johnson’s elaborate attempts to disrupt the performance of a play within a play, destroying a ballet sequence, for example, through the tactical deployment of sneezing powder, sticky paper, men in bear suits, and thumb tacks, among other things.

While some of the running gags carry over from the stage, Hellzapoppin also finds cinematic equivalents for the play’s disruptions of the theatrical experience, introducing, for example, an ongoing battle between the characters in the film and a projectionist (played by Shemp Howard), who grumbles about being forced to become an onscreen actor, mixes up the reels, jolts the projector sending shockwaves through the fictional world and in a gag which confuses the role of cameraman and projectionist, refuses to pan to follow the action but prefers to remain focused on a bathing beauty extra. In discussing the Comedian Comedy tradition, Steve Seidman and Frank Krutnik have argued that both social and formal transgressions get articulated around the figure of the central comedian whose normalization and social integration by the final reel shuts down the possibilities for reflexivity. In Hellzapoppin, this formal transgression can get dispersed across a range of different performers (here, including not just Olsen and Johnson but also Shemp Howard, Martha Raye, Hugh Herbert, and others). A woman crying out for “Oscar” interrupts Olsen and Johnson so many times that they demand someone do something about her, a request accompanied by off-screen sounds of gunshot and then silence. A title asking Stinky Miller to go home is projected over the action of a musical number, which ultimately has to stop dead until the silhouette of an audience member passes out of the theater. Hugh Herbert bombards Olsen, Johnson, and Raye with arrows during one particularly exposition-heavy conversation, with characters nonchalantly dodging or plucking away the projectiles whizzing all around them.

Just as disruption of the stage performance of Hellzapoppin could come from any direction and could exploit any aspect of stagecraft, the film version promises us a world where “anything can happen and probably will.” Hellzappopin embodies this tension between the textual and the extratextual in the recurring gag of the distracted and increasingly antagonistic projectionist. In one sequence, a fight in the projection booth jolts the projector, causing the characters to bounce uneasily on the screen; their attempts to restore balance by adjusting the frame line throws the image further off kilter bringing the film itself out of alignment; one character’s head gets repeated slammed against the frame bar as they try desperately to right themselves; and then, the characters get thrown into another film altogether, a western spliced in the middle of their reel, where they must battle Indians, before finally arriving back in their proper place in the film. After all, an opening title warns us that Hellzapoppin will bear no resemblance to any actual motion picture.

This interrupted performance structure was the stock and trade of another ‘vulgar modernist,’ Spike Jones. Literary modernist Thomas Pynchon emphasizes these elements in an essay written in tribute to the man known for his contributions to “music depreciation,”

“Spike’s preferred structure was first to state the theme in as respectably mainstream a manner as possible, then subversively descend into restatement by way of sound effects, crude remarks, and hot jazz, the very idiom Spikes Jones and his Five Tacks had begun with back in high school, to the great displeasure of their parents.”

Jones and His Cityslickers produced a range of fractured recordings of classical music but could also directed these auditory challenges at middle brow lounge music, as might be suggested by his best-known work, “Cocktails for Two.” One widely circulated recording of the song opens with a few bars on the piano and a humming chorus, gradually complimented by strings and a male vocalist who valiantly tries to maintain his decorum as the band adds gunshots, clinking glasses, slide whistles, kettle drums, fire bells, gasps, coughs, hiccups, and belches. It is a classic showdown between music, which defines the high, and noise, which defines the low. Many modern listeners know the audio recording of “Cocktails for Two” which was a favorite on the Doctor Demento radio show but the stage performances relied as much on sight gags as on comic sounds, including the use of drunken midgets, two headed men, acrobats, and a range of other activities which upstage and engulf the soloist (as can be seen on recently reissued kinoscopes of his television series). Members of the Spike Jones troope always emphasize the highly structured nature of these comic disruptions – describing how they had to be taught to burp with the beat, if not in tune with the music. As Dick Webster explains, “The things that seemed so crazy on stage were intensely worked out. It looked like bedlam but it was organized bedlam.” The dvds give us access to multiple versions of “Cocktails for Two,” each sharing common elements, but each also including novel additions, suggesting a structured but still open space for improvisation within each performance.

From “Cocktails for Two,” it is not hard to find our way back to Tex Avery’s The Magical Maestro, which depicts the showdown that occurs when a carny magician , knocks out an orchestra conductor and takes his place, waging war on an opera singer who is offering a fairly straight rendition of a classical aria. The maestro does everything he can to distract his high class rival, including magical transformations of his identity, turning him into, among many others, a ballet dancer, a football player, an Indian chief, a convict, a black-faced minstrel, a South Seas Islander, and a Chinaman. These disruptions include both visual gags (proliferating Rabbits) and sound-based gags, including abrupt shifts in musical genre (including Hillbilly, Hawaiian and Minstrel performances). While the film offers a narrative frame for the interrupted act, disruptions, as in Hellzapoppin, also occur from outside the narrative space, such as hair which seems to get caught up in the film’s projector and lingers until the opera singer plucks it away. Once again, the interrupted performance structure allows us to pit high culture against low, music against noise, and professional polish against liberating improvisation.

(To Be Continued)

“I Like to Sock Myself in the Face”: Reconsidering “Vulgar Modernism” (Part One)

The following essay is a work in progress, produced for an anthology of essays on animation and its relations to live action comedy. I see it as a chance to explore cartoons, long a passion of mine, but so far, not a topic I’ve written about. It also gave me a chance to return to the field of comedy studies, where I began my career. For more of my work on this topic, see What Made Pistachio Nuts?: Early Sound Comedy and the Vaudeville Asesthetic, Classical Hollywood Comedy, and the essay on Lupe Velez in The Wow Climax. It also extends the exploration of the relations between high and popular art which runs as a theme through the essays in The Wow Climax, but especially those dealing with Matthew Barney and with what Gilbert Seldes might have taught us about the aesthetics of video games. This essay is a bit on the academic side compared to much of what I post on this blog but my hope is that readers will bear with it for the insights it offers into postwar animation, comics, and comedy.

Published in Artforum in 1982, J. Hoberman’s “Vulgar Modernism” represents an important benchmark in critical discussions of “popular art.” Hoberman constructs the case for the formal innovation and artistic importance of a range of popular artists who were seemingly locked out of the cannon on the basis of their low cultural status, even as their work continued to influence a broad range of modern and postmodern artists. Hoberman describes ‘vulgar modernism’ as “the vulgar equivalent of modernism itself. By this I mean a popular, ironic, somewhat dehumanized mode reflexively concerned with specific properties of its medium or the conditions of its making.” [p.33] He goes on to suggest that this “sensibility….developed between 1940 and 1960 in such peripheral corners of the ‘culture industry’ as animated cartoons, comic books, early morning TV, and certain Dean Martin/Jerry Lewis comedies.” [p.33] Hoberman devotes the core of his essay to individualized discussions of animator Tex Avery, director Frank Tashlin, cartoonist Will Elder, and television performer Ernie Kovacs, yet his introduction makes clear that the concept extends more broadly, speaking to a particular relationship between popular culture and high art during this post-war period.

Read today, the essay feels more timid than it did a few decades ago – an attempt to negotiate with the sensibilities of a high art readership (and thus preserve entrenched cultural hierarchies) even as it rescues certain key popular artists from the margins of critical consideration. We see this exceptionalism in the speed with which he labels such works “para-art” (by the start of the second paragraph) or the ways in which he sets up his beloved creators through analogies to already acclaimed modern artists, describing Tex Avery, for example, as “the Manet of Vulgar modernism.” [p.33] In short, some artists rise above the “muck” that surrounds them, to reference another analogy in Hoberman’s essay. To this day, his almost oxymoronic coupling of “vulgar” and “modernism” sparks controversy from those celebrating popular art and those defending high culture alike; we still have a long way to go before we resolve the vague discomfort which comes from applying formalist criticism to what we call popular culture more often than we speak of popular art.

Modernism?

Hoberman’s concept of ‘vulgar modernism’ exists primarily as a frame for his close readings of particular texts and artists, so the passage quoted above is as close as he comes to an wholistic explanation of the concept. Modernism operates in his argument as a very broad and loose signifier of 20th century high art (and has become even more elastic as developed by subsequent generations of critics informed by his interpretations.) What links these popular artists to “modernism” for Hoberman is their interest in foregrounding the materiality of their medium and the conditions of its production and reception, their embrace of reflexivity and intertextuality. See, for example, his description of what Will Elder brought to early Mad Magazine: “His best pieces are collagelike arrangements of advertising trademarks, media icons, banal slogans, visual puns, and assorted non-sequiters….As Mad‘s leading formalist, Elder allows internal objects to tamper with the boundaries of a panel, breaks continuous vistas into consecutive frames, offers visually identical panels with wildly fluctuating details, and otherwise emphasizes the essential serial nature of his medium.”[p.37] In short, Hoberman is interested in these popular artist’s refusal to produce a coherent, consistent, or classically constructed world, openly displaying their own interventions as authors into the represented events. Hoberman, in that sense, was inspired by Screen‘s attempt to generate a Brechtian mode of film theory in the 1970s and by the French rediscovery of Frank Tashlin and Jerry Lewis, both of which rested on arguments that self-reflexivity and intertextuality shattered the codes and conventions of classical cinema.

Hoberman’s project has been most vigorously taken up by cartoonist and cultural impresario Art Spiegelman, who has used these artists as a missing link between the gutter art of the Tijuana Bibles of the 1930s and the underground comics of the 1960s and art comics of subsequent decades. Spiegelman has, in the process, broadened the cannon of the vulgar modernists by, for example, reprinting works by Basil Wolverton in his influential Raw anthologies, writing a book focused on the modernist sensibilities of comic book artist Jack Cole (Plastic Man) or for that matter, designing an album cover for a reissue of Spike Jone’s music, bringing this once cornball music to the attention of new hipsters.

Let’s be clear about the terms of this discussion. Hoberman’s vision of “vulgar modernism” is very different from the concept of “cartoon modernism” being promoted in a recent book by Amid Amidi. Amidi is interested in the design aesthetic introduced into American animation in the 1950s by cartoonists such as Ward Kimball, John Hubley, Maurice Noble, and Ernie Pintoff, among others, which was explicitly informed by trends in contemporary art. Here the focus is on simplification, stylization, abstraction, the flattening of depth perception, and the expressive and non-naturalistic use of color, among other properties. If Hoberman is linking the vulgar modernists to Brecht’s concepts of distanciation, Amidi defines his cartoon modernists in relation to Picaso, Matisse, Miro, Klee and bebop. Tex Avery would be an interesting figure for closer consideration because he is the one cross-over between these two very different conceptions of the relationship between American animation and modern art, having embraced aspects of this design aesthetic in his final few years of work (see, for example, Symphony in Slang).

Vulgar?

The term, “vulgar,” receives even less attention in the original essay with a lot resting on what Hoberman might have meant when he described these works as “the vulgar equivalent of modernism itself.” On one level, vulgar might imply untutored or ignorant, suggesting that we might approach such works much as the art world deals with outsider and folk artists. Yet, this argument is less than persuasive when we consider how many of these artists received formal training (and thus were exposed to 20th century art movements), experimented on the side with producing works which more fully met high art criteria, and often directly and explicitly parodied various modern artists and movements throughout their work (witness the recurring theme of “smashing the classics”). Art Spigelman has drawn a compelling representation of Jack Cole’s Plastic Man in a modern art museum, looking at the paintings with a mixture of revulsion, confusion, and recognition. These guys studied side by side in art school with people who would go onto careers within the art world; they had the technical skills to do work which would have met the art world’s criteria of evaluation, but they opted to pursue their careers in other spaces, creating different kinds of works for different kinds of audiences. They enjoyed their own marginality and often made fun of the pretensions and obscurtism of more exalted forms of artistic expression.

We might use the term, “vulgar,” in a descriptive sense to describe the relatively low cultural status granted their work at the time it was being produced; we might deploy the term, “vulgar,” to refer to certain intentionally distasteful aspects of their representation of the body and sexuality, their deployment of everyday materials including advertising as the inspiration for their own artistic production, though in that sense, they prefigure where art has gone in the postmodern period. Can we rescue “vulgar” by redefinining it in terms of transgressions committed both against the institutional practices of mainstream media and the world of high art or are the class politics of “vulgar” so deeply entrenched that it resists re-appropriation on this level?

We might also see them as “vulgar” in much the same way that Marian Hansen has spoken of “vernacular modernism” (here, drawing heavily on slapstick comedy as a primary reference point) and its relationship to classical cinema: “the term vernacular combines the dimension of the quotidian, of everyday usage, with the connotations of discourse, idiom and dialect, with circulation, promiscuity and translatability.” Like Hoberman, Hansen welcomes the productive tension between popular art and high culture. I am holding onto Hoberman’s term, “vulgar modernism,” for much the same reasons: it generates discussion precisely of the relations between the two terms which needs to occur if we are not to simply naturalize old assumptions about the relations between high and low.

I want to move us away from Hoberman’s use of the concept of “para-art” and the implication that these works are not quite art, worthy of aesthetic consideration but not perhaps the ultimate recognition given to “true artists.” I start from the assumption that popular art needs to be evaluated on its own terms, that it needs to be understood in relation to its own aesthetic goals and circumstances, and that no apology need be made for popular artist simply because they work in institutional settings other than the art world.

(To Be Continued)

More News for Aca-Fen

I wanted to send out two belated announcements: this past term has run away from me and I never seemed to have gotten around to posting these announcements, both of which are relevant of those of you who are fans but especially for those of you, across a range of different disciplines, who are involved in studying fan culture.

The first comes from the Organization for Transformative Works and centers around the launch of a new online journal.

Transformative Works and Cultures (TWC) is an open access, international, peer-reviewed journal published by the Organization for Transformative Works edited by Kristina Busse and Karen Hellekson

TWC publishes articles about popular media, fan communities, and transformative works, broadly conceived. We invite papers on all related topics, including but not limited to fan fiction, fan vids, mashups, machinima, film, TV, anime, comic books, video games, and any and all aspects of the communities of practice that surround them. TWC‘s aim is twofold: to provide a publishing outlet that welcomes fan-related topics, and to promote dialogue between the academic community and the fan community.

We encourage innovative works that situate these topics within contemporary culture via a variety of critical approaches, including but not limited to feminism, queer theory, critical race studies, political economy, ethnography, reception theory, literary criticism, film studies, and media studies. We also encourage authors to consider writing personal essays integrated with scholarship, hypertext articles, or other forms that embrace the technical possibilities of the Web and test the limits of the genre of academic writing.

Theory accepts blind peer-reviewed essays that are often interdisciplinary, with a conceptual focus and a theoretical frame that offers expansive interventions in the field of fan studies (5,000-8,000 words).

Praxis analyzes the particular, in contrast to Theory’s broader vantage. Essays are blind peer reviewed and may apply a specific theory to a formation or artifact; explicate fan practice; perform a detailed reading of a specific text; or otherwise relate transformative phenomena to social, literary, technological, and/or historical frameworks (4,000-7,000 words).

Symposium is a section of editorially reviewed concise, thematically contained short essays that provide insight into current developments and debates surrounding any topic related to fandom or transformative media and cultures (1,500-2,500 words).

Reviews offer critical summaries of items of interest in the fields of fan and media studies, including books, new journals, and Web sites. Reviews incorporate a description of the item’s content, an assessment of its likely audience, and an evaluation of its importance in a larger context (1,500-2,500 words). Review submissions undergo editorial review; submit inquiries first to review@transformativeworks.org.

TWC has rolling submissions. Contributors should submit online through the Web site. Inquiries may be sent to the editors (editor@transformativeworks.org).

The editorial board for the journal reads like the roster from our Gender and Fan Cultures conversation here last summer:

Nancy Baym, U of Kansas – Will Brooker, Kingston U – Wendy Chun, Brown U – Melissa Click, U of Missouri – Abigail Derecho, Columbia C Chicago – Catherine Driscoll, U of Sydney – Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Pomona C – Sam Ford, Convergence Culture Consortium – Jonathan Gray, Fordham U – Judith Halberstam, USC – C. Lee Harrington, Miami U – Heather Hendershot, City U of New York – Matt Hills, Cardiff U – Henry Jenkins, MIT – Derek Johnson, U of Wisconsin – Roz Kaveney, Independent – Derek Kompare, Southern Methodist U – Anne Kustritz, U of Michigan – Elana Levine, U of Wisconsin, Milwaukee – Farah Mendlesohn, Middlesex U – Helen Merrick, Curtin U of Technology – Jason Mittell, Middlebury C – Lori Morimoto, Indiana U – Roberta Pearson, U of Nottingham – Sheenagh Pugh, U of Glamorgan – Aswin Punathambekar, U of Michigan – Bob Rehak, Swarthmore C – Robin Anne Reid, Texas A&M-Commerce – Sharon Ross, Columbia C Chicago – Cornel Sandvoss, U of Surrey – Avi Santo, Old Dominion – Louisa Stein, San Diego State U – Catherine Tosenberger, U of Florida

On other fronts, from Robin Anne Reid, a participant in this same Gender and Fan Culture conversation, comes news of the launch of a new scholarly organization focused on the study of fan cultures.

THE INTERNATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF AUDIENCE AND FAN STUDIES

Audience and Fan Studies are fields of scholarship that have developed in a number of traditional academic areas, including but not limited to anthropology, communication, composition/rhetoric, computer science, film studies, folklore studies, information technology studies, law, library science, literary studies, media studies, performance studies, psychology, sociology, television, studies, etc.

This new organization will promote cross-disciplinary communication, activities, and scholarship through traditional academic venues, including:

  • Creation and management of a web page with forums for announcements and discussions for scholars in a range of fields;
  • Creation and management of an e-mail listserv to serve the interests of scholars in the field;
  • Publication of an online newsletter;
  • Creation and management of interdisciplinary activities such as study days, mini-conferences, and, eventually, an online conference in Second Life;
  • Creation and management of on-line academic journal;
  • Other academic projects dictated by the interests of the membership.

Scholarship in any of the following areas can be considered to fall under the association’s area of interest (although this list is selective not comprehensive):

  • Audience Research
  • Conventions
  • Convergence Culture
  • Cosplay/Costuming
  • Fan Art, Culture, Fiction, Film, Vids
  • Filking
  • Folklore/myth/urban legend
  • Hypertexts
  • Memorabilia and Collecting
  • Music
  • Role-playing Communities
  • Trading Cards
  • Video gaming (online, console, PC)
  • Virtual and face-to-face communities and cultures
  • Viral Marketing

As new media technologies and the World Wide Web offer more venues for creativity, more new topics for scholarship will develop.

If interested contact: iaafsorg@gmail.com

Yahoo Announcement List

LiveJournal Community

Both of these projects suggest signs of growth in the number of people doing work on fans and participatory culture.

Dumbledore for a Day: The Things You Can Do in Second Life

dumbledore 1.jpg

A while back, I shared with my blog readers my experiences in Teen Second Life, thanks to an organization called Global Kids. I’ve gotten a chance to work more closely with Barry Joseph, Rafi Santos, and others from the Global Kids organization over the past year or so and each encounter has left me even more impressed with their respect for their young participants and their imaginative use of virtual worlds to focus young people on issues impacting the real world.

Some of you may have seen the virtual documentary they produced on the Ugandan child soldiers, for example, or may be aware of their excellent advice on the educational use of Second Life.

Well, they invited me back for a return engagement — what they billed as the Hogwarts Dance Party of Good and Evil — this time focused around Harry Potter fandom and what it may tell us about the new media literacies. There’s an extensive discussion of Harry Potter in Convergence Culture and ever since, I’ve found myself speaking to Harry Potter fan conventions — including the Witching Hour in Salem, Phoenix Rising in New Orleans, and the upcoming Portus in Dallas. I am also featured in the documentary, We Are Wizards, which is currently making its way on the festival circuit.

dumbledore 2.jpg

For this event, a teen designer, Sylver Bu, developed a perfect melding of my own iconic persona and that of Dumbledore, the Wizard. As wizards go, I was not particularly skilled — in part because I use Second Life so infrequently and because I am clumsy in my off-line persona too, so I muffed my dramatic entrance, but I got much more comfortable as the event went along. Barry Joseph, who conducted the interview, dressed up in a dragon avatar for the festivities.

The interview segment was enhanced by periodic trips to the dance floor — this time to boogey to Wizard Rock recordings, most of which had some broad social message. The selections were chosen for Global Kids by USC’s own Suzanne Scott, who is completing a dissertation which deals in part with Harry Potter fan music production and distribution. Our discussion ranged from the basics of fan culture to the particular ways that groups like the HP Alliance have used J.K. Rowling’s world as a starting point for social and political activism, the ways Wizard Rock exploits social network technology,the current legal battles around the Harry Potter Lexicon, and the global nature of contemporary fan culture. For Rafi’s account of the event, see this blog post.

Global Kids has posted a full recording of the event for anyone who wants to relive the experience:

And this is an edited highlights video which mostly focuses on the Wizard Rock dance:

Still More Toy Stories…

In what can only be perfect timing, I got e-mail this weekend from Damon Wellner of

Probot Productions. Probot was one of the groups of Star Wars DIY filmmakers I discussed in Convergence Culture and continues to be a leader in the space of action figure cinema. Wellner shared their most recent production, Raiders of the Toy Box, which is being released just in time for the new Indiana Jones movie, and it’s a great example of what Probot does. This amateur or semi-professional action figure filmmaking anticipated the emergence of commercial series such as Robot Chicken, as I suggested a while back here in the blog. Even more interesting to me was a press release describing some recent developments for the Probot producers:

Probot Productions was founded in 1998 by former Emerson College film students, Damon Wellner and Sebastian O’Brien, as an experimental attempt to create a universe of “living” toys, and to lampoon Hollywood with its own merchandise. Probot’s world of Toy-Cinema was hatched out of the elaborate action-figure battles staged by Damon, Sebastian, and their toy collecting friends. Their first project, ALIEN 5, was made with no editing facilities, so the entire movie had to be shot in sequence, and edited in-camera, a painstaking process which took 6 months to complete. The resulting 22 minute video was finished for under $150….

Probot’s epic Star Wars parody, PREQUEL, caught the attention of Hasbro, Inc. makers of the Star Wars toy line. Impressed, Hasbro commissioned Probot to produce recreations of scenes from the Star Wars Saga for their website. Probot met the challenge of reproducing the cinematography and effects shot-for-shot, using 4″ action-figures. To help achieve this, the in-camera effects were enhanced in post-production with CGI elements, resulting in a unique blend of old and new-school styles. The video has had a resurgence as a hit viral-video on YouTube, and as a featured video on MySpaceTV, with over 420,000 views so far.

Since relocating to Hollywood in 2000, the team’s production values have soared. Damon has learned more about the professional techniques of visual effects, miniature photography, and pyrotechnics, while working freelance for visual effects companies. Damon assisted the model-makers and pyrotechnics crews for big budget Hollywood features including Hellboy, Resident Evil 2, and The Punisher. Probot’s 2004 release, ALIEN 5², a 30 minute sequel to ALIEN 5, was the culmination of all they had learned about storytelling and effects. Until now.

While the company continues to release a steady stream of new Toy-Cinema viral-videos each year, Probot’s latest project, a feature film titled, The Gibbon, promises to take the company to the next level. It is a co-production of Cinefile Video, and after 18 months of pre-production, the film is in production now. The screenplay is an entirely original concept and story by Sebastian O’Brien, and is being shot and directed by Damon Wellner. The budget, just under $30,000, while microscopic by Hollywood standards, will be enormous in the microcinematic world of Probot Productions.

The entire cast consists of custom-designed, 7″ scale action-figures, sculpted by a corral of talented sculptors and action-figure customizers. The original story combines elements of super-hero comics and classic monster movies. Probot’s effects team will be pushing the envelope of Toy-Cinema with a newly developed technique by the director to digitally animate the character’s faces. The result will be a truly unique film that will be hard to categorize, but easy to enjoy!

Thanks to my young nephew, Jacob Benson, I wanted to share another delightful example of how childhood play is giving rise to new forms of participatory culture — in this case, through the use of hand puppets rather than through the animation of action figures.

“The Mysterious Ticking Noise” is my favorite of a series of episodes of an amateur produced Potter Puppet Pals series. It’s hard to explain why this one brings a smile to my face but it just does.