My Wild and Wonderful Comic-Con Experiences

The first thing about San Diego Comic-Con which hits you (sometimes literally) is the throng of attendees. A decade ago, the con attracted 45,000 people. This year, it attracted something like 125,000 fans. Most of the growth has been since the dawn of the 21st century, with the population expanding at something like 20,000 new guests each year. It’s hard to think what other kind of event attracts such a large number of people and holds them together over a four day period. At any given moment, about a third of them is probably in the dealer’s room and another quarter is spread across the two main halls — Hall H and Hall 20 — which is where the most star studded events occur. For those who want to attend Hall H events, it is not unusual for people to start lining up in the wee hours of the morning. We got there at 6:30 am for a 10 A.M. session on Doctor Who, for example. And the lines will wrap for several city blocks. In the midst of this chaos, though, the crowds are surprisingly well behaved. Every few feet there will be someone in a costume striking poses and photographers taking pictures and the crowd simply swerves around them so as not to disrupt the picture taking. A friend joked though that if you pause too long in this madness, a line will start to form behind you with people not quite sure what they are waiting for. The costumes by the way lead to some interesting rumors: Peter Jackson was rumored to have dressed up in a storm trooper costume so that he can navigate the floor of the dealer’s room without being mobbed. My wife suggested that if Johnny Depp wanted to do the same, his best strategy would be to dress as Jack Sparrow, given the large number of great Jack Sparrow imitators wandering through the masses. At the end of the day, you will feel overwhelmed from the sheer intensity of trying to navigate around all of those people all day long.

There are basically two strategies for dealing with the crowds at Comic-Con:

a)camp out all morning, get into Hall H or 20, and stay there as long as you can. Most of the high profile events are in those rooms and people will camp out through panels they have no interest in to be able to stitch together those events which are most important to them. This can be an advantage to smaller productions which get sandwiched between the core events. A film like Kick Ass or District 8 may gain much greater visibility because it grabs the interest of people who otherwise would not be motivated to attend. It can create enormous frustration, though, as when the Twilight fans arrived early in the day, took over the auditorium, and blocked others from attending panels they wanted to see (especially the sessions with Tim Burton and, as it turned out, Johnny Depp), when their session wasn’t until much later in the day. Twilight fans, in particular, have a reputation for very focused interests, as opposed to the broad generic interests which might draw science fiction or comic fans to the event. (Of course, the conflict with the Twilight fans has as much to do with generational and to some degree, gender differences as anything else). My son and I ended up sitting through a really tedious session on the current state of the Star Wars franchise in order to be able to see James Cameron and Peter Jackson. It says something about how much Star Wars has fallen from grace that even so, that panel was only about a third full. It also says something about the limited knowledge of many reporters sent to Comic-Con that a USA Today reporter tried to make the disputes between old school and newer Star Wars fans a major story coming out of the event.

b) Attend smaller scale panels and avoid the main events as much as possible. Ironically, you can almost always get good seats on the comics-related panels at Comic-Con, given what a high percentage of the newer attendees come because of the media circus Comic-Con has become. Last year, I spent most of my time in Hall H or 20 and left disappointed that I had missed a chance to see some of my favorite genre writers and comics creators. This year, I tended to reverse the strategy, though I did manage to see, among other things, Sigourney Weaver and other “Wonder Women,” The Cameron-Jackson exchange, and the Doctor Who, The Prisoner and Lost sessions. Because of my choices this year, I have a chance to share with you some of the stories the mainstream media didn’t cover, assuming that you’ve read a lot already about the 20 minutes of footage from Avatar that Cameron showed. I wasn’t able to get into that session, so I don’t know anything you haven’t already read.

Sneak Peaks

Warner Brothers offered sneak previews of three of its new television series: Human Target, V, and The Vampire Diaries. We arrived a few minutes into Human Target and missed the set up. All three of them suffer from some of the classic problems of pilots and have not yet achieved their full potentials. I will give Human Target and V second looks. Vampire Diaries, not a chance!

Human Target, based on long-running DC comics series, deals with a body guard who puts himself in harm’s way to protect his clients and the support network he’s built around him. The lead, Mark Valley, is engaging and good looking but a little flat, especially when compared to much more colorful performances by Chi McBride playing more or less the same cranky private eye character he did so well on Pushing Daisies and Jackie Earle Haley as a character with a dubious past who knows how to get the information needed just in time by hook or by crook. The pilot dealt with a murder attempt on board a high speed train connecting LA and San Francisco. It delivered the goods with some really spectacular action sequences. Personally, I still prefer Leverage which hits many of the same genre buttons. I fear that I may not have enough room on my Tivo for both.

V is of course the remake of the 1980s alien invassion series. Even a quick glance suggests that the producers have framed it as a neoconservative critique of the Obama era: with the Visitors making hopeful promises starting with a reform of the health care system, offering charismatic spokespeople who seem to be able to play upon the idealism of the young and the ambitions of the mainstream media. Elizabeth Mitchell (Juliet on Lost) plays a single mom, a federal investigator, who by the close of the first episode, is finding himself immersed in an underground resistance movement which promises to uncover and publicize the hidden truths of the alien conspiracy. This one was the strongest of the three and will certainly demand a second look, though I wasn’t totally hooked after the first episode.

The Vampire Diaries sucked — and not just in the ways you expect or want a vampire series to suck. Producer Kevin Williamson has been telling the press that Vampire Diaries is not Twilight the television series and after watching the pilot episode, which deals with a high school girl who seems on the path to falling in love with the new kid in the neighborhood who happens to be a vampire, I understand why. True enough, Twilight is the most successful of a broader range of “my boyfriend is a vampire” stories. You can love or hate Twilight but it does speak with its own voice. Vampire Diaries is what happens when you put Twilight, Gossip Girl, TruBlood, and Dawson’s Creek into a blender. On a first viewing, I had trouble finding anything there that had not been done before and much better.

A personal highlight of the con for me was the session of The Middleman, which I wrote enthusiastically about here after hearing the pilot episode last summer, and remained totally hooked into till the bitter end. The Middleman came and went on ABC Family without getting any real attention from the mainstream media so odds are you’ve never heard of it. Picture something with the playful campy tone of the old Batman series, coupled with the chemistry of the old Avengers series, and the imaginative plots of the Men in Black movies. For me, all of the pieces worked; the cast was great and the dialogue was some of the best I’ve seen on television in the past few years with the possible exception of Pushing Daisies. If you haven’t seen it, you must get the DVD boxed set which came out this month. Like many short lived series, The Middleman left many unresolved plot points in its wake, so it was wonderful news that the cast of the series would be reuniting at Comic-Con for a live table read of the script of a never produced final episode which promised to answer all of the remaining mysteries. (The same script has also been adopted into a graphic novel). I can’t tell you how much fun it was to see the entire cast, in person, performing the script. Each cast member got wild applause on first entrance. Given the tongue-twister style dialogue, there were bursts of applause when an actor managed to pull off a particular convoluted section of the script. It meant so much that the producers, writers, and cast were willing to go this far in creating a sense of closure on the series — as disappointed as we all were to see it come and go so quickly.

In terms of advanced footage, the best stuff I saw were some segments from the remake of The Prisoner, scheduled to run later this fall on American Movie Classics. I’ve long loved the original British series; the new producers are putting their own distinctive spin of that series’s themes and concepts. A highlight will be the recurring role of 2 which will be played by Ian McLelland who chews scenery here with the same enthusiasm as he has done in the Lord of the Rings and X-Men movies. The new series is set in the middle of the African dessert rather than in a Welsh resort town but there are still giant white balls that chase down people who try to escape. This one will be high on my viewing schedule come fall.

Yes, They Still Talk About Comics

I was able to attend sessions focusing on three of my very favorite comics creators, Mike Allred, Seth, and Bryan Talbot.

Allred, often working in collaboration with his wife, Laura Allred, has produced some really wild romps through popular culture over the past several decades. He is best known for his work on MadMan, though I have also very much enjoyed his contributions to X-Force and X-Static (where Marvel’s X-Man franchise parodies itself) and The Atomics. Allred’s current run on Madman has been especially open to formal experimentation with one issue drawn in a range of styles as a series of visual shout outs to key influences on his work, constituting a mini-history of the comic arts, and another was designed so that the entire issue can be read as one continuous panel. The closest comparisons to the tone of his work might be Zot! or Concrete, that is, superhero comics with a strong sense of characterization and with an eye towards critiquing aspects of the culture around them.

Seth, by contrast, is drawn towards an entirely different set of cultural influences — more inspired by old New Yorker comics than by the superhero tradition. He’s a Canadian based indie comics creator, whose works speak to our shared obsession with residual media. It’s A Good Life if You Never Weaken is a semi-autobiographical piece about his search for a long-forgotten cartoonist. Wimbledon Green is a larger than life story about the world’s greatest comic collector (think Richie Rich if Richie Rich collected comics rather than cash). Clyde’s Fans, still a work in progress, and his most recent graphic novel, George Sprott, are character studies of old men reflecting back on the past — in the first case, the protagonist, among other things, collects postcards, while in the second Sprott was an adventurer, filmmaker, lecturer, and television host. There’s so much to love about Seth’s work — a very humane and caring tone, a great attention to detail (especially the artifacts of our cultural past), solid characters, and a visual style which is at once retro and surprisingly fresh. Seth’s public persona captures so much of what I love about his work: he is a very quirky guy who dresses in a timeless though vaguely retro style and speaks in a low key voice that fits his work perfectly. He read a series of short autobiographical bits which spoke to key influences on his work, how he thinks about stories and images, and what he did and did not learn in art school, all of which honestly helped me to understand his work more fully.

Bryan Talbot is a British cartoonist who has been credited with producing some of the first Steampunk comics in the English language, The Adventures of Luther Arkwright. Many of his works draw inspiration for late 19th and early 20th century British children’s literature. The Tale of One Bad Rat includes long ruminations on Peter Rabbit and other Beautrix Potter characters. His more recent Alice in Sunderland is a long, rambling look at the creation of Alice in Wonderland which manages to convey large chunks of British regional history; the visual look of Alice is complex, scrapbook like, created through the juxtaposition of drawings and photographs, and is a powerful illustration of how graphic storytelling can be used for the purposes of cultural criticism and literary history. Here, he was speaking on the anthropromorphic tradition in British comics — basically funny animal strips in the newspaper and magazines — and how they have inspired his latest creation, Grandville, which is scheduled for release later this fall.

I also attended a lively session on contemporary art direction hosted by John Muto (Home Alone, Terminator 2 3D), who I have gotten to know through our mutual involvement with the 5D conference, and another session focusing on the life and work of Harvey Kurtzman, best known for his contributions to Mad, his war comics for E.C., and his Little Annie Fanny series for Playboy.

Henry Takes the Stage

This was the first year that I was speaking at Comic-Con. I was invited to join two panels, the first centering around the launch of the Institute for Comic Studies, and the second focusing on the current state of Harry Potter fandom. The Institute for Comic Studies is headed by Peter Coogan, who is the author of Superhero: Secret Origin of a Genre. I have agreed to be on the board of advisors for the organization which is designed to provide a central clearing house for initiatives supporting the teaching and research of comics, primarily on the college level. As someone who is doing more and more writing at comics myself, it is a thrill to see Comics Studies really start to take off as an academic field, albeit one which straddles a range of different disciplines and interests. Panels which the Institute organized at Comic-Con ranged from discussion of the forgotten erotic comics of Superman’s co-creater Jerry Schuster to discussions of the mental health of the Joker to considerations of whether it would be possible for any mortal human to acquire the skills and tools that Batman displays in the comics. Some of the work is still very much in the range of fan boy speculation, though good fan boy speculation, while others is informed by historical, anthropological, art history, or cultural studies perspectives.

I told the group that we should learn from other fields which have sought to tackle materials beloved at Comic-Con: the teaching of film studies at the university level has broadened the public’s background and tastes, especially around independent films, foreign films, and documentaries and thus expanded the market for kinds of films which don’t play at the local multiplex; Game Studies has helped to rally a defense of the medium against censorship, with scholars being able to add credibility to industry participants concerned about freedom of expression issues. Both of these represent directions that Comic Studies could take. On the other hand, I fear that science fiction has been badly served by being folded into Literature programs with many college courses emphasizing only those works which are already in the canon but which can claim some association with SF, rather than dealing with the popular and pulp roots of the genre and the ways they influenced a much broader range of cultural materials. I worry that comics scholarship may emphasize indie and alternative comics at the expense of the popular roots of the medium, taking a “no capes, no flight” philosophy which again only accepts those works which can be most easily embraced by the literary and art worlds.

The panel on Harry Potter fandom was organized by Eric Bowling and included many of the key players in the fandom: Leslie Combemale from ArtInsights Gallery; Melissa Anetelli, webmistress for the Leaky Cauldron and author of the best-selling Harry: A History, Gwendolyn Grace of the HP Educational Fanon, Time Magazine critic Lev Grossman, and Heidi Tandy, a founder of the Fiction Alley website. I had gotten to know many of these great people through my participation the previous week at Azkatraz, a Harry Potter fan gathering in San Francisco. Here, there was lots of concern raised about Warner Brother’s lack of Harry Potter promotion at Comic-Con and whether the fans still exert any meaningful influence over what happens next with this franchise. It was astonishing to me to see the number of people waiting in line for this session, which was standing room only and turned many away. A few came no doubt expecting to see cast-members, but most came to “represent” for their fandom.

There’s so much more to tell but I am hoping this will give you some taste of the pleasures of this year’s Comic-Con.

How “Dumbledore’s Army” Is Transforming Our World: An Interview with the HP Alliance’s Andrew Slack (Part Two)

So you’re using a language of play, of fantasy, of humor to talk about political change? Much of the time, political leaders deploy a much more serious minded, policy-wonky language. What do you think are the implications of changing the myths and metaphors we use to talk about political change?

I think it’s so freaking important to break things down for people in a way that they can understand. We get into this wonky-talk. There are so many organizations doing amazing things, and they mobilize their membership really well – but it doesn’t connect to young people. Young people, by and large, care about issues like genocide. They care about issues like poverty, discrimination, environment. They want to be engaged in these things, but the people who are going to be inviting them to engage, have to be thinking about “how do I authentically talk from my heart to this young person in a way that’s authentic to their experience and to our shared experience?” One of the reasons why I was successful in beginning the Harry Potter Alliance is because I’m such a hardcore Harry Potter fan. Had I not been such a passionate Harry Potter fan, had I not been caring about this myth so much myself, I wouldn’t have been able to translate the message as well.

And so it’s important, I think, when talking with people to find out what you have in common, what you’re both passionate about, and then to translate that into the real world in a way that makes sense. Activism should be fun. Activism is fun, but of course, the issues can get so heavy. We can get paralyzed by a sense of guilt of not wanting to even look at the problems because they seem so big. And if I look at them, we often ask, “how can I go on with my life?” This is similar in Harry Potter to people saying, ‘ I can’t say Voldemort’s name. I’m too scared to even say his name, so I say, you-know-who.’ In our world we think, “I can’t say AIDS. I can’t say poverty. I can’t say genocide because if I open my eyes, I’ll never be able to look away, and it will ruin my life.” And that’s not a helpful attitude for anybody. We have to learn how to say the name Voldemort in stride, and how to say these words – genocide, etc. – in stride, and not get caught in this idea that we have to fix it all. We can be part of a larger community playing our part. And that experience can be empowering and fun.

We had a meeting a couple days ago – a conference call. It was for something called Stand Fast. We’re working with this amazing organization called STAND, which refers to itself as the student arm of the anti-genocide movement, and they are building a constituency across the world of students who are standing up against genocide in Darfur and now against ethnic cleansing in Eastern Burma. They are funding a civilian protection program in Darfur, where $3.00 protects one woman from being raped for a whole week, and $5.00 protects a whole family in Eastern Burma by providing them with radios. And this is such an empowering concept because you can say to a young person, ‘instead of going to a Starbucks and getting a latte, instead of going to a movie, on this particular date, we’re going together not go to a movie or give up some sort of luxury item, and $10.00 will fund the protection of one woman in Darfur for a week and a whole family in Eastern Burma – just $10.’ A young person can understand that, can grasp that, and can also understand that this is not just about charity – it’s not just about your money. It’s a political statement when 15 year olds are protecting the lives of people in Darfur and Eastern Burma because their governments have been unable to do it regardless of how many resources they have. That is a political statement, and so we talk about that. But here’s how we did it – we got the leaders of the Harry Potter fan community, the biggest names in the Harry Potter fan community of the Websites that – the Leaky Cauldron, Mugglenet, the biggest wizard rock bands – we got them all together to make an announcement that we are going to have a live conference call where you can all come. We had over 200 people come on the conference call under short notice to talk about this one day where we’d all be donating, December 3rd, it just happened. And people can still do this at theHPAlliance.org/civilianprotection. But, and here’s where part of the fantasy comes in: we didn’t just call it a conference call. We called it a meeting of Dumbledore’s Army. We’re going to have a Dumbledore’s Army meeting – that we’re going into a Room of Requirement, where you’re given a code to get in. You press pound, and you’re in the room of requirement. We talk about, we’re in the Room of Requirement now, and just like Harry got up and taught people how to do this, we’re going to talk to you about the issues. And everybody was briefed, all the speakers on what to say, and how to talk about this issue – but they did it from their own place and what they’re passionate about. And it was just incredible. The response we’ve had from the people on the call was unbelievable. People giving up smoking. People giving up coffee. People saying, “I’m taking half the money I would have spent on Christmas, and giving it to this. And I’m going to tell all my family that the reason I’m not giving them as much this year is because I gave it to people who need it in Darfur and Burma, and I’m sure they’ll be proud of me. And I feel so proud of myself right now.”

It was an amazing experience, but it was done through fantasy. We didn’t just say we’re like Harry. We actually pretended that we are in a Room of Requirement. We are Dumbledore’s Army, and we’re doing it. And it was really empowering last year when J. K. Rowling said that this is truly an organization that is fighting for the same kinds of values that Dumbledore’s Army fought for in the books, and to everyone involved in this organization, the world needs more people like you. And it was a real boost for our morale, and it was an incredible thing to get a message like that from one of our favorite authors.

You’ve already started down this path – so why don’t you say a little more about how the fan community provides part of the infrastructure for something like the HP Alliance?

Yeah, it couldn’t happen without the fan community. When we started, I was blogging about these ideas – about the parallels between discrimination in Harry Potter and discrimination based on race or sexuality in our world. Or about political prisoners in Harry Potter and political prisoners in our world. About ignoring Voldemort’s return, and ignoring the genocide in Darfur in our world. So I was blogging about this, but no one was reading my blog. You know that wasn’t really taking off too fast. Then I met Paul and Joe deGeorge of the wizard rock band Harry and the Potters. These are two guys that started a band where they sang from the perspective of Harry Potter. They still do. They loved the idea of a Dumbledore’s Army for the real world, and soon enough we began brainstorming ideas – and I took my blogs, where I provided action alerts for how people can be like Harry and the members of Dumbledore’s Army, and they reposted it on their Myspace page. Their Myspace at the time was going out to about 40 or 50,000 profiles. Now it’s going out to about 90,000 Myspace profiles. Soon other musicians began to form bands that were wizard rock – bands based off of other characters in the book. Draco and the Malfoys were the bad guy band. The Whomping Willows based off of a tree at Hogwart’s . The Moaning Myrtles – there’s so many of these bands, and they all began to repost together, collectively, the messages that I was writing. Soon, through these wizard rock bands, we were communicating with over 100,000 Myspace profiles, and then the biggest Harry Potter fan sites wanted to be a part of it as well because this is a community that is just so incredibly enthusiastic, idealistic – believes in the values that are in Harry Potter about love and social change and the values in Amnesty, and they began to post what we were doing.

And they put up our first podcast right before Deathly Hallows, the last book, came out. Thanks to their putting it on their podcast feed at the time, at the peak of Harry Potter‘s popularity – that podcast was downloaded over 110,000 times, and STAND, one of our partner organizations, saw a huge spike in involvement that month thanks to our efforts. They saw a 40% increase in high school chapter sign ups compared to a normal two week period in July, and over a 50% increase in calls to their hotline – 1-800-GENOCIDE in a two week period compared to a regular two week period in July. This year the wizard rock bands and Mugglenet posted this special project that we were doing with a group in the UK, called Aegis Trust. Aegis Trust works on all sorts of genocide remembrance issues around the Holocaust, around Rwanda, but they had a special project where they were sending letters to the United Nations, asking the Security Council to do something about war criminals that were being given protection, impunity in Sudan, and they ended up sending 10,000 letters to the UN Security Council. Of those 10,000 letters, over three-quarters of them came from the Harry Potter Alliance. We weren’t members of government. They were getting a lot of members of governments to write. We got young people. We brought Dumbledore’s Army. The Harry Potter Alliance – we have about 3500 people on our e-mail list. We have about 50 chapters. We have about 12,000 Myspace members – about 1500 Facebook members, but we could not have done that without this larger network of wizard rock bands sending it out and of fan sites posting – here’s what Dumbledore’s Army is doing now. Here’s what Harry Potter Alliance are doing now. We’re all part of this alliance. Let’s all step up to the plate, and even though we reach sometimes about 100,000 people, getting about 8,000 signatures, that’s almost 1 in 10 of who we’re reaching, and that’s a lot as far as action goes because different people are engaged in different ways through our organization.

So that’s just one example. In the last year, we’ve raised well over $15,000 from small donations to fund the protection of thousands of women in Darfur and villagers in Eastern Burma.

In the process we educate young people through podcast interviews with survivors of the Rwandan genocide in 1994, with policy experts, as well as with partnerships with groups like the Genocide Intervention Network and it’s student arm STAND, the ENOUGH Project, Amnesty International, Aegis Trust and several other human rights organizations.

And now we are building these chapters and we want them to exist in schools and after school programs. And we want to help shape curriculum on how Social Studies and English are taught, if schools would be open to it.

At the same time, you’ve been able to build an alliance with some very traditional political organizations and governmental leaders. Could you say a little bit of how they’ve responded to the Harry Potter Alliance approach?

When I first started calling traditional organizations letting them know that I wanted to help them, I was very afraid that they were going to hang up when I told them the name of the organization is the Harry Potter Alliance. And if I said, HP Alliance, they would think it was The Hewlett Packard Alliance. In fact, one of our board members has been getting mail to the Hewlett Packard Alliance. We’ve never referred to ourselves as the Hewlett Packard Alliance, but people see HP, and they think Hewlett Packard. (laughter) And that’s an alliance I don’t want to be part of. So (laughter) when I tell the organizations at first who we are, there’s this initial insecurity that I have on how they’re going to react, and at first that insecurity proved to be warranted because they didn’t know what to do with a group that is named after a fictitious book for young adults and plus, we had no track record. Though despite some challenges here and there, I must say that I was actually impressed with how open minded some people were. I think the best example of this is the Co-Founder of the ENOUGH Project John Prendergast. John is a policy expert on issues of international crisis and truly is a celebrated activist. But John actively looks for outside of the box ideas. When I met him in 2005 and told him about our new organization, my heart was pounding with nerves and he looked at me very intensely and basically said, “Dude. Comic books turned me into an activist. The least I can do is mention this in the book I’m writing with Cheadle.” And that’s Don Cheadle who starred in Hotel Rwanda. And this was crazy to me. And we are in that book, which was a New York Times best seller. It’s called Not On Our Watch: the Mission To End Genocide in Darfur and Beyond and it’s an excellent book.

But now when I call up organizations to form coalitions and partnerships I can tell them that we can get you thousands of people to see what they’re doing. This strategy is very important to us: connecting Harry Potter fans to NGO’s that are doing impressive work. We see they need more people, and we provide them with the people. We tell them, ‘look, you know Harry Potter, and you know there’s a lot of enthusiasm here. We can channel some of that enthusiasm to this noble work that you’re doing by just using examples from the books and this incredible community of people, and we’ve been in Time magazine – and we’ve been in The Los Angeles Times.’ So you know that sort of helps them take us more seriously now. Now, they want the Harry Potter Alliance to be involved, and then sometimes I’m thinking, I have to kind of pinch myself that now they’re coming to us – and there’s been a couple examples of them paying us as consultants to help them with recruiting young people to become part of their movement. The best example of that has been with our efforts to get young people educated on the issue of media reform.

We’ve worked with an organization called Free Press which can be found at freepress.net - Free Press leads a group called the Stop Big Media coalition. And we have a whole campaign where we compare things in Harry Potter that involve media consolidation to media consolidation in our world. Most people don’t know much about media consolidation, but when you begin looking at how minorities are not represented fairly in the media, ethnic and racial minorities make up about a third of the US population, and they own I believe less than 3% of commercial TV. Women and minorities make up about 66% of this country, and yet are on television news about 12% of the time. What we see on TV, what we are shown visually, what is defined as “normal” in our culture are white men. The problem here is that the Federal Communications Commission has stacked the deck in the favor a handful of conglomerates to own most media in any given city. And this wipes out independent local media. And we want the FCC to change that, because it affect our outlook on race, it affects our outlook on our own communities, it even affects how foreign news like the genocide in Darfur is covered. The big conglomerates have cut foreign news by around 80% since the 1980′s and replaced that with celebrity gossip -which would explain why Brittney Spears is covered more than a genocide that would be stopped if the political will was there.

This issue has gotten our membership really fired up, and we say what media reform activists always say: “whatever your number one issue is, media reform should be your number two issue because your issue can’t be communicated if the media is not free.” It’s been really exciting – but yeah, so these traditional organizations, whether it’s the Save Darfur coalition and the ENOUGH Project, STAND and the Genocide Intervention Network and Aegis Trust, all issues – all organizations that work on genocide related things – or Free Press or the No on Proposition 8 campaign, which we worked on. We recently did something called Wizard Rock the Vote, where we registered close to 900 people. I think they were almost all new voters at wizard rock concerts across the country and online, and that was in partnership with the organization Rock the Vote. They loved us, and it’s a lot of fun. It’s a lot of fun for them, too, because these organizations have staff members that are Harry Potter fans. And I personally have put out a couple of videos satirizing Wal-Mart, and because of this fan base, we were able to get two of the videos over 2 million views on YouTube. It just sped out of control, and I mean it’s incredible. I call it cultural acupuncture, when you can take something where there’s a lot of energy, and then translate it to something else. A lot psychic energy you – psychological energy being placed on something, and you move to make it healthier. It’s a remarkable thing to see what we can do, and for teachers and youth workers, I think it’s really important to think about what are your students interested in?

I think one of the biggest problems with our education system – I mean I can’t stand No Child Left Behind, not just because it hasn’t gotten proper funding, but because I wasn’t very good at standardized tests in school – and I think they are generally about regurgitating information. I call it, Leave No Imagination Recognized. When engaging young people to become civically minded, find out what they care about. If you’re working at an after-school program with inner-city youth, find something that’s going to speak to inner-city youth. Are they interested in a specific kind of music? A lot of the kids that I’ve worked with from inner-city environments have been interested in hip-hop, so can you find yourself a teacher who knows about hip-hop, and gets the people to be part of a contest that’s hip-hop oriented – but that involves research to say that the greatest hip-hop music out there, not the kind you hear in clubs per se, but the greatest hip-hop artists have reflected what’s been going on in their communities and how things can change. That’s the real hip-hop, and to you really work on that – and do some sort of hip-hop activism through organizations like the League of Young Voters, who often times refer to themselves as the League of Pissed Off Voters – that gets young people engaged. Show them episodes of The Wire, the HBO series, and then talk about the issues of crime, poverty, and drugs that are depicted in that series. And then right after that discussion, begin working on a project together. My idea for The Wire is show one episode that’s an hour, then the next hour, discuss the issues that are in that episode, and how that reflects your own personal life – and in a third hour, start a project that addresses those issues.

So it should start with a piece of art that provokes the discussion, then have the discussion, and then after the discussion, don’t leave it there, turn it into action. And that’s one way to engage a specific population of young people, but that same method can be replicated for any group of young people, especially if you have access to video equipment. If you had access to video equipment, if the kids know how to write, you can show them how they can produce videos that will be seen by a lot of people, and how there’s more to their world than just where they are – that they really now more than ever – we don’t need to be paying lip service to young people that they can change the world. They can do it today, they can do it right now. If they care about something, they can do it, and they will be better at coming up with a video than the teachers. Find writing teachers. Find acting teachers to help them refine their jokes – make their videos funny or emotionally powerful. Have them interview people in their communities on what they care about. Get that stuff up on YouTube – where ever a young person’s voice can be heard by the world. Tom Friedman has a great quote that the only competition that now exists is the one between us and our own imaginations. And now it’s purely a matter of getting young people the access to these resources to do it, and then getting them to learn how to most effectively make those ideas and things viral. All you got to do is get them to care about something, and then they’ll take care of it from there.

We’ve talked about a number of new media platforms in all of this– blogs, podcasts, social network sites, YouTube. How important is that infrastructure of new media to enabling the kind of work that you guys are doing?

Without new media, I don’t know what we would be doing. I don’t think we would exist. We would be like students at Hogwarts without wands. We would be a club at one or two high schools, which would be fine. It’s great to be a club at a high school. But we probably would have a hard time being an organization that has 50 clubs that are really active, which we have right now as far as chapters go, and a message that gets out to 100,000 young people in Japan and in places…just all over. We’ve got kids in Japan that are working on media reform issues in the United States. New media has provided us with an opportunity where you know we always say to young people that they have a voice, that their voice matters. The Harry Potter Alliance communicates with over 100,000 young people across the world. We’ve gotten to old media, Time magazine, front cover of The Chicago Tribune “Business” section – The Los Angeles Times, etc. None of this could’ve happened without new media platforms.

Andrew Slack is the founder and executive director of the Harry Potter Alliance where he works on innovative ways to mobilize tens of thousands of Harry Potter fans through a vibrant online community. Andrew has also co-written, acted in, and produced online videos that have been viewed more than 7 million times. He has taught theater workshops and served as a youth worker for children and adolescents throughout the US and Northern Ireland. A Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Brandeis University, Andrew is dedicated to learning and extrapolating how modern myth and new media can transform our lives both personally and collectively.

I am looking for other compelling stories of how fans are becoming activists. If your fandom is doing something to make the world a better place, drop me a note. I will try to feature other projects through my blog in the future.

How “Dumbledore’s Army” Is Transforming Our World: An Interview with the HP Alliance’s Andrew Slack (Part One)

Last weekend, Cynthia and I drove up to San Francisco where I spoke about “Learning From and About Fandom” at Azkatraz, a Harry Potter fan convention. The key note speaker at this year’s event was Andrew Slack of the HP Alliance. Slack is a thoughtful young activist whose work is exploring the intersection between politics and popular culture. He’s really helped to inspired some of the research I am going to be doing in the coming year about “fan activism” and how we can build a bridge between participatory culture and democratic participation. I interviewed Slack for Journal of Media Literacy earlier this year and I thought this would be a good opportunity to share that interview with my blog readers.

Slack’s work is gaining greater visibility at the moment because of the release of the new film, including a recent profile in Newsweek magazine (warning — the piece is typically patronizing and ill-informed about things fannish but that it exists at all speaks to the impact this group is starting to have in terms of rallying young people to support political change). At the con, Slack spoke about his “What Would Dumbledore Do” campaign, an effort to help map what the “Dumbledore Doctrine” might mean for our contemporary society. You can read more about it here.

The HP Alliance has adopted an unconventional approach to civic engagement — mobilizing J.K. Rowling’s best-selling Harry Potter fantasy novels as a platform for political transformation, linking together traditional activist groups with new style social networks and with fan communities. Its youthful founder, Andrew Slack, wants to create a “Dumbledore’s Army” for the real world, adopting fantastical and playful metaphors rather than the language of insider politics, to capture the imagination and change the minds of young Americans. In the process, he is creating a new kind of media literacy education — one which teaches us to reread and rewrite the contents of popular culture to reverse engineer our society. One can’t argue with the success of this group which has deployed podcasts and Facebook to capture the attention of more than 100,000 people, mobilizing them to contribute to the struggles against genocide in Darfur or the battles for worker’s rights at Wall-Mart or the campaign against Proposition 8 in California.

The Harry Potter novels taught a generation to read and to write (through fan fiction); Harry Potter now may be teaching that same generation how to change their society. The Harry Potter novels depicted its youth protagonists questioning adult authority, fighting evil, and standing up for their rights. It offers inspirational messages about empowerment and transformation which can fuel meaningful civic action in our own world. For example, in July 2007, the group worked with the Leaky Cauldron, one of the most popular Harry Potter news sites, to organize house parties around the country focused on increasing awareness of the Sudanese genocide. Participants listened to and discussed a podcast which featured real-world political experts — such as Joe Wilson, former U.S. ambassador; John Prendergast, senior advisor to the International Crisis Group; and Dot Maver, executive director of the Peace Alliance — alongside performances by Wizard Rock groups such as Harry and the Potters, The Whomping Willows, Draco and the Malfoys, and the Parselmouths. The HP Alliance has created a new form of civic engagement which allows participants to reconcile their activist identities with the pleasurable fantasies that brought the fan community together in the first place.

In this interview, Slack spells out what he calls the “Dumbledore Doctrine,” explores how J.K. Rowling infused the fantasy novels with what she had learned as an activist for Amnesty International, and describes how the books have become the springboard for his own campaign for social change. Along the way, he offers insights which may be helpful to other groups who want to build a bridge from participatory culture to participatory culture.

Why don’t we begin with the big picture? Can you just describe what the HP Alliance is, and what it’s core goals are?

The Harry Potter Alliance, or the HP Alliance is an organization that uses online organizing to educate and mobilize Harry Potter fans toward being engaged in issues around self empowerment as well as social justice by using parallels from the books. With the help of a whole network of fan sites and Harry Potter themed bands, we reach about 100,000 people across the world.

The main parallel we draw on comes from Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix where Harry starts an underground activist group called “Dumbledore’s Army” to wake the Ministry of Magic up to the fact that Voldemort has returned. The HP Alliance strives to be a Dumbledore’s Army for the real world that is trying to wake the world up to ending the genocide in Darfur.

Recently we have expanded our scope, discussing human rights atrocities in Eastern Burma, and we’re going to be incorporating Congo into our vision soon. I’ll talk more on exactly what we have done regarding these issues in a moment, but the parallels don’t stop with this notion of Dumbledore’s Army waking the world up to injustice. The Harry Potter books hit on issues of racism toward people who are not so called “pure blooded” Wizards just as our world continues to not treat people equally based on race. House elves are exploited the way that many employers treat their workers in both sweat shops in developing nations and even in superstores like Wal-Mart. Indigenous groups like the Centaurs are not treated equally just as Indigenous groups in our world are not treated equally. And just as many in our world feel the need to hide in the closet due to their sexual orientation, a character like Remus Lupin hides in the closet because of his identity as a werewolf, Rubeus Hagrid hides in the closet because of his identity as a half-giant, and Harry Potter is literally forced to live inside a closet because of his identity as a Wizard. With each of these parallels, we talk to young people about ways that we can all be like Harry, Hermione, Ron and the other members of Dumbledore’s Army and work for justice, equality, and for environments where love and understanding are revered.

The average person we reach is somewhere between the ages of thirteen and twenty-five, very passionate, enthusiastic, and idealistic – but often have very few activist outlets that speak to them. And this is no coincidence. Unfortunately, so much of our culture directed at young people is about asking them to consume. It’s looking at them as dollar signs, as targets for advertising. But Harry Potter is a great example of a book that hasn’t done that. Of course there’s merchandising and all that kind of thing, but fundamentally the message of the book is so empowering for young people.

Young people are depicted in the books as often smarter, more aware of what’s happening in the world, than their elders, though there are also some great examples where very wise adults have mentored and supported young people as they have taken action in the world. These books represent a very empowering tool for young people, and young people have taken it into their hands – and created Websites and fan fiction, and a whole genre of music called “wizard rock” around Harry Potter. And it’s been extraordinary. So we are utilizing all of that energy and momentum to make a difference in the world for social activism. We are essentially asking young people the same question that Harry poses to his fellow members of Dumbledore’s Army in the fifth movie, “Every great Wizard in history has started off as nothing more than we are now. If they can do it, why not us?” This is a question that we not only pose to our members, we show them how right now they can start working to be those “great Wizards” that can make a real difference in this world. Whose imprint can have a value that is loving, meaningful, and nothing short of heroic. And the enthusiasm we’ve seen from young people is just astounding.

By translating some of the world’s most pressing issues into the framework of Harry Potter, it makes activism something easier to grasp and less intimidating. Often we show them fun and accessible ways that they can take action and express their passion to make the world better by working with one of our partner NGO’s. Not to mention, our chapter members and participants on our forum section come up with their own ideas which they collaborate on together – so while we often make decisions from the top-down, we also are building a way for each member to direct the destiny of what they and the larger organization are working on.

J.K. Rowling used to work with Amnesty International. How do you think that background impacted the books?

Well there’s definite parallels between Amnesty’s themes and the themes in Harry Potter. One of the main human rights issues that Amnesty works on is for the release of political prisoners.

Harry’s godfather, Sirius Black, was a political prisoner. His best friend James Potter and James’ wife Lily were murdered and his godson Harry was orphaned. But on top of that trauma, he was accused of committing the murders. Now if he had had a trial, he could have made a case for why he was innocent and how the real killer was still on the loose. But that couldn’t happen because the Ministry of Magic had suspended habeas corpus. This all happened at a time of great terror and in times of great terror, governments often lock people away without a fair trial. We need not look very far for that. It’s happening right now in our own country. And not only are these prisoners, many of them innocent like Sirius, not only are they locked up without trial, they are subsequently tortured–another issue which Amnesty works hard to stop.

In Harry Potter, the Wizarding prison known as Azkaban is guarded by Dementors. Dementors suck all the happiness from you, and live you in a state of tortured non-stop panic attack/depression. They literally feed off of the unhappiness in your soul until they suck your soul dry. This is the essence of torture and this is what’s been getting done to people in Guantanomo Bay and Abu Ghraib and Eastern European prisons that the CIA helped build. People are locked away without a fair trial and then tortured. This is all done under the rationalization that in times of terror, justice must be suspended in the name of freedom. But then the very freedom we profess to stand for gets suspended as well in the name of preying on people’s greatest fears rather than praying for our better angels. And this hurts the cause. A society that becomes a tyranny in order to fight for its freedom has destroyed the very purpose for which it is fighting. And in doing so, such a society gives strength to it’s opponent. We need not go very far in our research to understand that the torture that our country has committed in Abu Ghraib and Guantaomo Bay has not only been immoral, it has been dreadful on a public relations front. Images of tortured Muslims has become one of al Qaeda’s most effective recruiting methods.

And this aspect of a government shooting itself in the foot while selling out it’s ideals happens in Harry Potter too. After Dumbledore’s Army forces the Ministry of Magic to acknowledge Voldemort’s return, the Ministry returns to the days when people are no longer given trials. And in order to look like they are making some headway, they arrest someone innocent named Stan Shunpike. They know the guy is innocent. They arrest him anyway, and he ends up being released by the Death Eaters, and put under the Imperius Curse, thereby becoming one of the Death Eaters.

So these Amnesty themes of political prisoners getting the right to a fair trial and the end of torture are consistent with the Harry Potter books and the values of Amnesty International.

But JK Rowling in her personal work outside of the books, takes that a step further. This can be seen in her charitable work and advocacy on many fronts, including helping children who are caged in Eastern Europe. Besides this incredible work, there’s the words that she speaks outside of the confines of the books and these words help articulate the messages of Harry Potter.

Her commencement speech at Harvard in the spring of 2008 was unbelievable. One of the main themes of the speech was around the power of imagination and how we must “imagine better.” She said, this doesn’t necessarily mean imagining a magical world like she has done, but about building the capacity to imagine oneself in other person’s shoes, and in that speech she talks about her experience at Amnesty International as being formative for her imagination. She got to work with people that were so passionate about imagining themselves in other peoples’ shoes. And she became one of those people – imagining herself in the shoes of political prisoners, in the shoes of people that have fought for democracy under tyranny. There’s a horrific story she tells where she is helping somebody who had been in prison, and as she was guiding this person to the airport, she heard a blood curdling scream. She said she had never heard a scream like this in her life, and it was from a political refugee that had just been informed that because of his dissident activities in his own country, his mother had just been killed. She said it was a scream that will always stay with her. And in talking to the students at Harvard, she was really very, very adamant that those in the United States, which is for now the only world super power, those of us who have the privilege of education also have both an opportunity and a responsibility to to imagine better, and imagine ourselves in other people’s shoes. Let me read her quote directly. She says, “If you choose to use your status and influence to raise your voice on behalf of those who have no voice; if you choose to identify not only with the powerful, but with the powerless; if you retain the ability to imagine yourself into the lives of those who do not have your advantages, then it will not only be your proud families who celebrate your existence, but thousands and millions of people whose reality you have helped transform for the better. We do not need magic to change the world, we carry all the power we need inside ourselves already: we have the power to imagine better.”

What can you tell us about your own relationship to these books? How was the idea of the HP Alliance born?

I already had a very strong interest in the power of a story to grab people and to get them more engaged in living a healthier life and in contributing more in a way that is civically engaged and civic minded. As a college student at Brandeis University I got to explore my feelings around this while at a center for peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland, while interviewing Civil Rights activists in person throughout the US, and while studying at an acting conservatory in London. It was when I graduated from college, however, that I found Harry Potter. I had heard of the books but had little interest in them.

Upon graduating, I was teaching at a creative theater camp, and I was amazed at the way these children discussed and debated Harry Potter – with so much passion. It was insane. I was intimidated to start reading the books; there was just so many of them. There were four released at the time. The teachers were enthralled by them, and urged me to read them.

I was still resistant. And then I started working in the Boys & Girls Club in Cambridge, and I was working with a completely different socio-economic group of kids – racially and ethnically diverse – yet they, too, were lovers of Harry Potter. One of my colleagues at the Boys & Girls Club of a different race and ethnic and socio-economic background from me was obsessed with the books. She would read them constantly and I couldn’t understand how it could be so great – and finally I asked her to hand me the first book, and she did – and I read that first chapter, and I just started laughing so hard.

The first sentence – ” Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. ” I was surprised. This is a subversive book that right away begins to indict what I eventually started to call a Muggle Minded attitude — being obsessed with “normalcy,” not being interested in imagination, not being able to see outside of one’s self. So I was swept away, right away, and by the end of that first chapter, I turned to this young woman who handed me the book and I said, ‘I think this book just changed my life.’ I raced through those first four books. Read them again and again, and I began making personal connections with them for myself. I think when you read a book about a hero, often times you become the hero, and for me, I would see myself as Harry in specific situations – and issues that I have dealt with in my life around anxiety – fighting Dementors became similar to that. There’s a lot of loved ones I have that suffer from addiction, and their struggle with addiction seemed to mirror some characters’ struggle to get out of the hold that Voldemort has on them when they follow him as Death Eaters. There’s a very addictive quality, and watching what happened to one of the characters and his family around being a Death Eater is interesting because you see the tragedy of what happens to anyone who has a family member that is an addict, as so many young people do. In the case of Voldemort’s followers, it’s a cult, but it’s still got this very addictive element to it, and I’m sure if you go into areas where there’s terrorism in the world, a lot of families – like the ones I met and worked with in North Ireland — experienced that addictive quality. It might not be drug addiction, but having a family member who is in a paramilitary group is a very, very difficult thing to cope with. Even families that sided with them intellectually couldn’t deal with the idea of them being imprisoned and all of the horrible things they were doing.

So these books were speaking to such a broad range of very human experiences – including the wish to live a normal life despite adversity. The wish to, in Harry’s case, play Quidditch and Exploding Snap and to have a crush on a girl like Cho Chang or Ginny Weasley. And all the while having to contend with darker forces in the world that he is internally connected to. Well I was just swept away by all of this. And the feeling of the story: Harry Potter brought me to this child-like state where everything was fun. I mean the books are so fun. What’s different about these books than a lot of other fantasy books is how hilarious they are. They’re just full of jokes that go into the day to day existence of characters, and then all of a sudden we’re back into that fantasy realm of suspense that you see in books like the wonderful series His Dark Materials, more commonly known as The Golden Compass books. Harry Potter has all of that but it has humor to it, and so it really–I spent years as a comedian and I really connected to her sense of humor. I really connected to her sense of fantasy and imagination – how utterly playful the books are. So I was connecting to them from the point of view of how well written they were, how fun they were, and how much they spoke to me on a personal level in my own life, but then at the end of the fourth book, I was just amazed at what Dumbledore says to Cornelius Fudge, the Minister of Magic at the time. He says, in the wake of Voldemort’s return, we’ve got to get rid of dementors, form alliances with those in foreign lands, and end our attitudes of racism. He then gets up in front of the whole school and says that we must be able to say what we’re scared of, which I think is essential for young people to do, and to vocalize their fears and to name their fears. And we must understand that Voldemort’s greatest gift is spreading discord and enmity, and that’s what we see in our world.

With terrorism, it’s not just about killing and the number of people they kill. It’s also about the fear that they inflict in those who survive. And that’s the same as Voldemort, and Dumbledore says, we can only combat this discord and enmity with an equally strong bond of friendship and trust. And this is what I call this Dumbledore Doctrine – that as the band “Harry and the Potters” say, “the greatest weapon we have is love.” That this can actually translate into policy that is really important. And I began thinking, wow, the world needs Dumbledore. The world needs a Dumbledore, and then when I read that fifth book, where Harry starts an activist group named after Dumbledore – Dumbledore’s Army – I thought, the world needs a Dumbledore’s Army, and I began imagining myself going into the Room of Requirement and meeting with young people as if we were part of Dumbledore’s Army – and each of us could be like Harry Potter – could see ourselves in the hero role, not where we’re the chosen one to bring down all evil or anything like that, but where each of us plays a valuable part in changing this world, where we are the shapers rather than the spectators of history. I think it’s amazing how we in this country with all of our resources have an opportunity to connect with people in our communities as well as people all over the world. And to do so in our relationships but also through volunteering in our communities and service as well as through civic engagement in the political process. That doesn’t mean to engage in a partisan fashion, although people can feel free to do that, but the Harry Potter Alliance doesn’t advocate for anything in a partisan way. However, we do want people to both volunteer with people at a local AIDS clinic as well as advocate for better treatment of AIDS victims in Africa. We want our young people tutoring underprivileged kids and helping them read, getting them engaged in the Internet and learning those things, but then also challenging the rules of the game that are making it possible for kids to go without food. And to challenge our politicians on both sides of the aisle that need to do something about that.

I think a key part of Harry Potter’s popularity is that it is an example of a myth that the world is so hungry for, not just that they are funny books or that they’re entertainment or that they’re suspenseful or that they help us escape. They do all those things, but these books open our minds and our hearts to benefiting humanity in a way that I think secretly we all know unconsciously needs to happen. And that there’s something truly profound about the love that Dumbledore speaks about and the love that Harry has for his friends that ends up being the thing that defeats Voldemort. And we need that love now. Not in any flaky sense of the word, but in a way that comes from deep within us and that we can share from our hearts.

Changing Coasts

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Hiya, gang. I’m back!

The past few months have been intense — emotionally and physically — as I’ve pulled up roots after spending 20 years at MIT, 14 of it in the Senior House dormitory, and moved to a loft in downtown Los Angeles to start my new job this fall at the University of Southern California. I have had less time than I would have liked to focus on the blog and as a result, have grown frustrated by my inability to respond adequately to a range of developments in areas which I try to follow closely. I am hoping to change that in the weeks ahead, though for now, while I am going to try to get back on a regular schedule of posting, you may expect some disruptions in my typical three day a week schedule.

Today, I wanted to share with you some images and thoughts about my final days at MIT and my first impressions of lives in Los Angeles. This blog really tries to focus on my intellectual life more than my personal life but I’ve gotten so many questions from readers and the two are pretty closely intertwined.

This first photograph (above) was taken by a longtime visiting scholar in the Comparative Media Studies Program,Jaroslav Svelch, who has been doing work through the GAMBIT games lab. It was taken right after I had participated in my last graduation as an MIT faculty member. I had gone through this process many times before but as I sat there, watching the most recent class of CMS graduate and undergraduate students parade by, I realized that in a very real sense that this was my graduation too. I found myself engaged in the bitter-sweet process of reflecting backwards over good times and bad at MIT and forward to the new life which awaited me on the opposite side of the country. Tears welled up as we rose to sing the school anthem and as I found myself walking down the aisle. The band was playing the theme song from the Simpsons as the faculty recessed — an apt choice under the circumstances. A few minutes later, my wife wanted to take some pictures of me in my robe and I ended up mimicing a classic graduation pose — trying to capture that sense of liberation one feels when it is all over. And at that moment, I looked up to see J. across the way taking my photograph also capturing this moment of frivolity.

I was honored with several farewell parties in my final days at MIT. The first of these events was a gathering of the staff, students, and faculty whom I had worked with so closely over the past decade. It was an evening of laughs and nostalgic tears as people rose to tell stories about the ways my work had impacted their lives. At times, it felt like I was Huck Finn who got to sneak in the back of the church and listen to what people said at his final rites. There were moments I wanted to shout out “Not dead yet!” in my best Monty Python voice. But at the same time, I was deeply touched to hear such words of tribute from people who had also transformed my life in such powerful ways. These photographs from the event were snapped by Ilya Vedrashko, an alum from our masters program, who is now a “thought leader” or “guru” at Hill, Hollday Advertising across the River in Boston. This first one shows my wife and I sitting and listening to the wonderful comments from my CMS community.

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This next one is a reunion of sorts of most of the folks who have been active researchers through our Convergence Culture Consortium over the past few years. As you can see, many of our student alums had returned for the event. We are planning a major reunion of all ten classes that graduated from the Comparative Media Studies Program under my watch next spring.

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Many of you who have contacted me in recent years have had a chance to interact with my assistant, Amanda Ford. Amanda now lives in New York City with her husband, Sam Ford, who was also a graduate student in our program, but both of them came down for the going away party. I wanted to share this image as a way of saying thanks to Amanda for all that she has done to support my work over the past few years. Amanda is also going to continue to be facilitating my research and scheduling at USC though she will continue to live and work in New York City. Amanda’s a new mother and we’ve discovered that we work well in a distributed manner. Even when we were working on the opposite sides of my office door, we ended up corresponding via e-mail or speaking on the phone most often given my crazy travel schedule.

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I also very much appreciated a gathering in my honor hosted by folks working in the games industry around Boston. Long time friends and collaborators Alex Chisholm, Scot Osterweill, and Philip Tan stood up and “roasted” me. Given how central games have been to my time at MIT, this was a fitting exchange between academia and industry.

Steer Roast is an event held each May by the students and alumni of Senior House, the oldest dorm on the MIT Campus. For the past fourteen years, my wife, Cynthia, and I have been housemasters, living in the dorm and interacting with its other residents. A housemaster in the MIT system is something like a community organizer, or at least that’s the way I see the job. Every housemaster establishes a different relationship to their dorm population. But for me, the job is one of community building. We tried to help the community define their own goals and figure out the best way to achieve them. We were there in the middle of the night when a student in distress knocks on our dorm. We were there helping the student prepare for disciplinary hearings or work through academic issues. We were there to hold house elections and to advise student leaders. We were there trying to offer ways that students can work with an MIT administration which doesn’t always understand who they are or where they are coming from. And most of all, we tried to make the dorm feel like a home, sometimes for young people who say they have no other home to come back to.

Steer Roast is the community’s celebration of its traditions, its social ties, its creativity, and its diversity. It is said to be one of the largest alumni events which MIT hosts each year: many of our students come back year after year, bringing their families, connecting with decades-old friends, and offering their support to the people currently living in the dorm. It’s a massive task to organize for Roast — not the least because of all of the bureaucratic organizations we need to navigate through. Roast is a come as you are (or perhaps come as you imagine yourself to be) party so students dress up, dress down, and dress all around, the more outlandish the better. You will get a taste of the atmosphere of Roast from these photographs taken by Harvard Student Dharmista Rood. She has posted them as creative commons, attribution, non-commercial, share alike

This first image gives you a taste of the pit-lighting ceremony. As you can see, it’s a come as you are party. Well, actually, it’s come as you want to be party which reflects the range of identities and lifestyles that co-exist in a dorm where being called strange is a compliment.

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Every year for the past decade Cynthia and I have launched the mud wrestling at Roast. Students had joked for years about trying to get the housemasters into the mud. One year an administrator expressed concern about the event — some concerns about student safety, some, I think, about morality, though it’s often hard to separate the two once admins start fretting. We responded by saying that it was perfectly safe — just clean fun — indeed, we did it ourselves. So that year, we were obligated to put on a show for the admins and for the students. And the students showed such delighted, we continued the tradition year after year. One year, we scripted and choreographed a WWF style performance, complete with faked injuries, ring-side coaches, and a dastardly ambush. Most years, we played it more or less straight. We hammed it up but we left it to fate. And almost every year, my wife beat me. I’d be slow to get knocked off my feet but once I did, it was pretty much all over. I have excuses — I can’t see without my glasses. But the reality is that she’s just more competitive than I am and in better shape all around. We found that once we’ve done our bout, the students respected us if we needed to get them to cut out some activity that wasn’t by the book, and it made us much more part of the community we were there to support.

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For several decades, the dorm has proclaimed its identity through a banner which depicts a red white and blue skull, an image taken from the cover of one of Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing books, and the motto, “Sport Death.” In the skull’s teeth are the words, “Only Life Can Kill You.” For the students, the image and slogan embodies an ethos of creative risk-taking. Without risks, there is no life. And from risks comes innovation and imagination. The image frightens some parents and more administrators (and that pleases many of the students very much) but at the end of the day, the “Sport Death” spirit is one which is very much in tone with the claims that MIT itself makes as the place where creative people are working together on the outer limits of their fields of research. We have a closet full of “Sport Death” shirts from various Roasts — “Spork Death,” “Spore Death,” “Sport Robot,” and so forth. But I was delighted this year to discover that the dorm had selected a design which was their tribute to our time as housemasters. The “Sport Jenkins” shirt was designed by a CMS undergraduate alum Jaimie Jones. In its mouth are the words, “Only Admins can kill you.” It’s either a sentiment you get or you don’t and doesn’t require much comment here. During the feast this year, we were greeted by a prolonged standing ovation from a courtyard full of students, many of whom were wearing Sport Jenkins shirts. It really took my breath away.

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On July 1, we got on a plane and flew to California, leaving much of this behind. For those of you who haven’t been following the plot, I am accepting a post as the Provost’s Professor of Communications, Journalism, and Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California. I am thrilled to have a chance to work with many here who have been long time friends and colleagues and many more who I am meeting for the first time. There’s something really extraordinary happening at USC right now — starting with the fact that the Provost created a series of positions which are designed to straddle between schools and support multidisciplinary research. Having never been terribly disciplined even on good days, it is amazing to have a job title which tries to capture the full range of my interests. I know great things are going to happen to me here.

July 4 turned out to be an essential “new to LA” experience. When we were living in the dorm, we essentially had the country’s most famous fireworks display going off in our front lawn. The dorm was position in front of the Charles River, across from the Boston Esplanade, and just a little ways down from the barge from which the fireworks were fired. We just had to sit in lawn chairs and watch the spectacle unfold. This year, we had no clue where you go in LA to see fireworks, and of course, in our minds was the same idea of a centralized civic ritual. So, we ended up staying in our hotel. Around 8:30 or so, we started hearing fireworks going off and so we went to the window figuring we’d learn the answer to our newcomer’s questions. And we saw localized fireworks displays going off from neighborhoods as far as the eye could see. Being on the 10th floor we could sit Los Angeles unfold all around us and everywhere we looked there were bright lights exploding in the air. At the peak, we saw maybe 20 different displays occuring simultaneously in different neighborhoods, making it as clear as I’ve even seen the truth of the claim that LA is not a city but a cluster of different neighborhoods.

We moved into an amazing Art Deco building, the Eastern Columbia building, which is in the heart of the newly revitalized downtown area. The Eastern Columbia building was built as a department store in 1930 and it has been a local landmark ever since. I’m told that our loft was where the freight elevator used to be. I had been hoping we were moving to the lingerie department, but oh well. The building was the center of a running joke on the old Jack Benny radio show and has been featured in many Hollywood productions, including the pilot episode of Moonlighting and the final sequence of the first Transformers movie. Our most famous current resident is Johnny Depp, though, before anyone asks, I haven’t seen the guy yet. I’m told this is simply one of his residents and he isn’t here much. (after seeing the pictures of him as The Mad Hatter, I keep having fantasies about asking him down for a tea party.)

The building itself looks like what would happen if the giant clock from Safety Last was redesigned by the best architects from the Land of Oz. Indeed, it so defines the Art Deco movement in Los Angeles that it is one of the illustrations of the Wikipedia entry on Art Deco. We live on Broadway which is an old theater district. Across the street from us is the Orpheum theater, one of a bunch of old movie palaces on our street. The Orpheum was the setting for the tryouts from So You Think You Can Dance, one of my favorite summer series.

So, all told this is the perfect place for us to live. After living in Boston for 20 years without a car, we did buy ourselves a Prius — a pretty red one! — but we are still determined to walk as much as possible. There’s public transportation from our neighborhood to the USC campus so this is well within the range of possibility.

Our move was delayed by a day because the moving company was paniced over what might happen on the morning of the Michael Jackson funeral. We are just a few blocks from the Staple Center. As it happens, things were really quiet. Indeed, the neighborhood was a ghost town as many people didn’t come into work trying to avoid the mob. I wandered down to get some groceries, saw one guy trying to hawk t-shirts, a few kids wearing only one glove, and a family wearing Michael Jackson shirts, and that was it. It is amazing so many people could gather in Los Angeles to pay tribute to the King of Pop and have so little disruption in the surrounding area.

So, we have arrived in Los Angeles. We are still trying to unpack our books and media. But the loft is already starting to feel like home. We are heading off in a day or so for San Diego for Comic-Con.