From Neil Gaiman to J. Michael Straczynski: News on the Julius Schwartz Lecture Series

Late last spring, we held the first in what we hope will be a continuing series of Julius Schwartz Memorial Lectures at MIT. Schwartz had been a founding figure in science fiction fandom and a influential editor at DC comics who was a key influence on the so-called Silver Age of American comics and on genre entertainment more generally. When he passed away, some of his friends put together seed money for us to start a series of public talks by key figures in the space of comics, science fiction, and genre entertainment. Our first speaker, appropriately enough, was Neil Gaiman, whose work spans comics (The Sandman), fiction (American Gods), cinema (Mirrormask), television (Neverwhere), the blogosphere, and much much more. Gaiman gave a memorable opening lecture on the nature of genre and its influence on the creative process, which is best known for an extended rift on how pornography and musicals follow similar conventions. It was inspired by Linda Williams' Hard Core, but Gaiman took it in his own idiosyncratic directions. As the evening continued, we had a great conversation, which ranged across his career, talked about some of the key themes in his work, and especially dug deep into his ideas about myth, storytelling, and popular entertainment. Anyone whose ever heard Gaiman knows he's a charming and engaging speaker with lots of interesting insights into cultural history and media theory.

In this excerpt from the event, Gaiman talks about his "pulp roots" and his ongoing relationship to genre entertainment

And here, Gaiman talks about the "dark" qualities of his children's fiction:

Gaiman was consistently this witty, engaging, and intelligent for the entire evening!

Too bad you weren't there!

Well, the good news is that CMS and New England Comics are offering you the chance to order a DVD of the Neil Gaiman lecture and discussion with most of the proceeds going to help fund future events in the Julius Schwartz Lecture series. You can order your very own copy here for ONLY $19.99.

We are already making plans for the second lecture in the series to be held on May 22nd at 7pm in Kresge Auditorium. Tickets will go on sale early next year.

This year's speaker is another transmedia creator – J. Michael Straczynski. Straczynski is best known for his role as the creator of the cult science fiction serial Babylon 5 and its various spin-off films and series. Straczynski wrote 92 out of the 110 Babylon 5 episodes, notably including an unbroken 59-episode run through all of the third and fourth seasons, and all but one episode of the fifth season. His television writing career spans from work on He-Man, She-Ra, and Real Ghostbusters through to The New Twilight Zone and Murder She Wrote. He followed up Babylon 5 with anothe really solid science fiction series, Jerimiah. In more recent years, he's enjoyed success as a screenwriter, most recently writing the script for The Changling, Clint Eastwood's period drama, and as a comic book writer, who both works on established superhero franchises, such as Spider-Man, Supreme Powers, Fantastic Four, and Thor, and creates his own original series, such as Rising Stars, Midnight Nation, The Twelve, The Book of Lost Souls, and Dream Police. He was one of the first television producers to actively engage his fan community online and has consistently explored the interface between digital media and other storytelling platforms.

This January, CMS will be hosting a screening series some key episodes from his television work, intended to revive awareness of the extraordinary contributions Straczynski has made to the evolution of American television.

I thought I would share her a passage from my forward to Kurt Lancaster's 2001 book, Interacting with Babylon 5: Fan Performance in a Media Universe, which spells out some of the cultural and historical significance of Straczynski's series:

Midway through Babylon 5's first season, in an episode called "And the Sky Full of Stars," Security Chief Michael Garibaldi picks up a copy of the newspaper Universe Today and the camera quickly pans over the various headlines on the cover. Some of the headlines refer to narrative issues raised on previous episodes; others introduce issues and topics that will surface more directly in subsequent episodes. What initially might seem like a throwaway detail -- a character reading a newspaper -- becomes an important turning point when we return to it for a second viewing. Of course, these headlines are only fully decipherable if you freeze-frame the image for closer scrutiny, and their full importance was made clear only through the ongoing Net and Web discussions of the series.

For me, this moment is emblematic of why Babylon 5 was such a remarkable experiment in television storytelling. First, it reminds us of the elaborate narrative planning that went into the production of the series. J. Michael Straczynski understood television as a long-form storytelling medium, and he planned and developed the basic story arc for all five seasons before the first episode was produced. His careful calculations certainly left him room to respond to shifting conditions (ranging from the loss of cast members to the perpetual threat of premature cancellation) and offered space for one-shot episodes. Such long-range planning also enabled him to build into the series elaborate foreshadowing and references to its history episode by episode. Not many television producers could have built plot details for the second season into a mid-first season episode.

Second, this moment suggests the degree of self-consciousness about media that ran through Babylon 5. The series' characters inhabit a world profoundly shaped by the flow of news and information across various channels of communication. They read about events that affect them in the newspaper or watch them unfold on television. They give interviews to reporters, and we watch as what they say is distorted to serve various agendas. They grumble over attempts to merchandise their identities as part of the ongoing propaganda and public relations warfare that shapes the complex intergalactic politics at the center of the series.

Third, the fact that these details are burried within the text, waiting to be discovered by the tacticla use of the VCR as an analytic tool and the collaborative efforts of Net discussion lists, points to the awareness and exploitation of fan competencies that transformed Babylon 5 into one of the most significant cult television programs since Star Trek. Like Star Trek's Gene Roddenberry, Straczynski understood the fans to be central to the program's success from the outset. Straczynski saw his fans as a group of opinion leaders to be courted through prebroadcast publicity and convention appearances, as a group of niche marketers and activist whose support could keep the program on the air during the rough times, and as students in an ongoing classroom where he could share his views about the production process and the aesthetics of television storytelling. Straczynski's relationship with fans was rocky. He was worshiped for his extraordinary productivity and personal vision and feared for his slashing flames in response to some fan comments. He at once sought to facilitate fan discussion and regulate fan speculations to avoid potential intellectual property issues. Yet whatever that relationship with his audience became, Straczynski sought to use digital media to directly and personally engage them, not just occasionally, but week in and week out.

Straczynski sought to validate the new styles of reading and interpretation that have been facilitated by the shifting media environment. The introduction of the videotape recorder and the Internet has significantly altered the informational economy surrounding American television. It is significant that Stephen Bochco's Hill Street Blues (1981-1987) was the first major success story of the videotape era and that David Lynch's Twin Peaks (1990-1991) was one fo the first new cult television series to develop an important Internet following. These series, with their ever-more-elaborate use of story arcs and program history, rewarded a viewer who carefully scrutinized the images using the freeze-frame function, who watched and rewatched the episodes on video tape, and who used the Internet as a vehicle for discussion with a larger interpretive community and the Web as a means of annotation. The succession of new media technologies since the late 1970s has encouraged the emergence of a culture based around the archiving, annotation, transformation and recirculation of media content.

Straczynski's genius was in recognizing the shape and potential of that new culture and in producing a science fiction series that rewarded these participatory impulses. He trusted his audience to ferret out information craftily hidden within the text, awaiting our discovery; he trusted the audience to make meaningful connections from episode to episode and season to season; he trusted the fans to be invested enough in the series to watch his ambitious story unfold and flexible enough in their understanding to cope with the complex shifts in character allignment. He made demands on the audience almost unprecedented in American television history, and for those of us who stuck with him over the five year run of the series, our patience and commitment were fully rewarded!

For these reasons, it is vitally important that media and cultural scholars look closely at Babylon 5, which seems, in retrospect, as rich an embodiment of what television storytelling can do in an age of media convergence as Star Trek represented the full potential of television storytelling in the network era. If you didn't watch Babylon 5, you missed something important."

Hope to see many of you at the event in May!