What Transmedia Producers Need to Know About Comics: An Interview with Tyler Weaver (Part Two)

I was interested in your description of transmedia audiences as “absorptive.” Explain what you mean by that concept and describe some strategies by which producers might support these desires to absorb your story, especially as they seek to also maintain a relationship with more “passive” viewers who can feel overwhelmed by a dense mythology or elaborate story arcs.

An absorptive audience will seek out as many pieces of a transmedia experience as they can and absorb it into their lives somehow. Some will take it to the (wonderful) extreme of creating their own stories within the storyworld. This is different from a passive audience. Some people simply want to sit back and be entertained. Both have are essential. The key with transmedia design going forward will be to give both passive and absorptive audiences something to chew on.

In my own highly unscientific poll while I was researching the book, I found that there are two sticking points keeping a more passive audience member from becoming absorptive. One we can’t do anything about. The other we can.

The first sticking point is time. We talked about it a bit in the first question. Time is the unspoken transaction in a creator-audience relationship. Money is the secondary transaction, given when time is available.  A movie may ask two or three hours of your time in a single sitting. A video game anywhere from four to a hundred hours. A fully absorptive transmedia experience that may continue indefinitely? Who knows.

There is one thing that we can control, and I hate to belabor the point, but the story has to be worth absorbing. People will invest time and money if they are first emotionally invested in the story being told. I talk a lot about irresistible – not expectant – transmedia in the book. We have to give the audience a complete story within each medium so that they want to absorb more pieces of the story experience, not force them into a hunt for a complete story across media they may not normally use in their lives.

As you note, Superman went transmedia – or at least the character was appearing across multiple media platforms – within a few years of his first appearance in comics. What is it about the superhero genre which made such transmedia extensions a logical and compelling development?

The superhero genre is an iconic representation of being more than we are and of tapping into the best qualities of human nature, the mythological potential in all of us. With that in mind, there are aspects to the superhero genre that are more visceral in other media. There’s nothing like seeing Superman fly on the big screen. I was giddy when I saw the new “Man of Steel” trailer and saw and heard him fly, a visceral, emotional experience that you don’t get from turning the pages of a comic (usually). Even in his radio appearances, there was something “super” about Bud Collyer’s voice. He sounded like Joe Shuster’s drawings brought to life. The representation of superheroes in other media can inform our perspective of the ongoing adventures in comics – sometimes as a detriment, sometimes as a positive.

Extending a superhero into other media – in the best cases – utilizes the inherent characteristics of that medium to present the mythological potential of the superhero genre in its most visceral form, thus forming an emotional investment and bond. Comics can offer the wild and crazy, budget-free ongoing adventures and a deep fan community. Movies give us the chance to be the “man on the street” in the comics, experiencing the wonder that is inherent in the genre (much like Kurt Busiek’s masterpiece, Marvels). Video games give us the chance to be that hero – and be rewarded for it. Want to BE Batman? Play Arkham City, then read the accompanying comics to find out how things became what they became in the gap between Arkham Asylum and City - if you so choose. I would argue that the reason that all other Batman video game adaptations were so awful in the years prior to Arkham Asylum was that they failed to satisfy that urge to embody the hero, a hero that is actually human. Perhaps the reason Superman video games haven’t been that great is that there’s actually a possibility (no matter how remote) of us being Batman – much moreso than the possibility of us physically being Superman.

Comic fans are often obsessed with the ideal of a perfect “continuity,” yet comics publishers have found it difficult to maintain total consistency in a story which has extended over 40-50 years and which unfolds across multiple titles. What might other kinds of transmedia producers learn by looking more closely at the comics industry’s decades-long struggle with fan effort to police continuity?

 

As is often the case, reality interferes with the ideal. When something is explored and mined by human beings over the course of decades, hiccups are bound to occur. Chains are great in spurring creative solutions to problems, but when pulled too tightly, they can cut off circulation. One way forces you to be creative, the other makes you a prisoner (as I talked about in our first question).

As for what transmedia storytellers can learn about fan-policed continuity? Embrace it. Make it part of the experience. The Marvel Universe of the 1960s is the single best effort at a shared universe put to paper. The Marvel Universe was the superheroes yes, but it was more than that. It was a family that contained the fans and foragers of the second generation of comics fans. And Lee, Kirby, and the Marvel Bullpen, while they took the work seriously, never took themselves seriously – at least outwardly. Look at the brilliant No-Prize (in its early incarnation) for example. An empty envelope for spotting a continuity error. Simple, cheeky, but effective. Most importantly? Fun and engaging.

As you note, comics production involves deep collaboration between artists and writers, a situation which closely parallels the challenges transmedia producers are facing in bringing together artists who are used to work within very different media. What might producers learn by studying more closely the “Marvel Method” or some of the other strategies for collaboration developed within the comics industry?

The Marvel Method is a leap of faith in the abilities of your collaborator, sort of the creative (and less humorous) version of “trust falls” at corporate retreats. But we have to look at where and when the Marvel Method worked best: it arose out of a need to get comics released on a reasonable schedule with a small team. It didn’t hurt that the “small team” consisted of Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, John Romita, Wally Wood, John Buscema – all master comics storytellers.

Kurosawa had a saying that I love, and can be applied to any collaborative effort – not just film. It was something along the lines of “if it comes out just the way I envisioned it, I’m unhappy.” The point of collaboration is to work with great people and let your vision become more than you envisioned in the first place. Otherwise, what’s the point in collaborating?

The lesson for producers? Work with the best and let them do their job.

Right now, there’s a lot of buzz about Marvel’s plans to develop a television series based on S.H.I.E.L.D. as part of its ongoing effort to build out a series of franchises, all linked together through The Avengers. What do you think has worked about this strategy for Marvel? Are there any concerns you might have about this approach?

I’m intrigued by the S.H.I.E.L.D. series and hope that it’s successful. It’ll be fascinating to watch it play out – both as a critic and a fan. It sounds like they’re on the right track, though I do have a few questions, which I try to keep updating   as new information becomes available. http://comicstoryworld.com/whedon-and-shield/.

As a whole, Marvel’s done a lot of things right with their “Cinematic Universe.” They’ve brought the concept of a shared universe to the mainstream in a way that no other film company has. They’ve brought some fun to the superhero film genre. Plus, they FINALLY got The Hulk right.

There have been missteps along the way - Iron Man 2 being the most egregious. By having a shared universe and distinct continuity within a non-serialized medium, Iron Man 2 felt more like Avengers .5, setting up plot points necessary for The Avengers to the detriment of the film as a whole.

I’m curious if there’s an endgame in mind for this iteration of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. With a reliance on a tight continuity between films, the longevity of the respective individual film franchises is questionable unless they take the James Bond series continuity as an inspiration. The James Bond series is a perfect example of a series that has both endured and achieved longevity through a loose continuity, sliding time scale, and different actors taking on the role. In a way, the Bond series is approached like a comic book series, but instead of pencillers changing the look of the character, actors change. But then again, there’s always the magical reboot button somewhere down the road. Either way, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is a fascinating experience and experiment that gave us Joss Whedon’s Avengers, so I’m in for the ride.

TYLER WEAVER is a writer of stories in (and across) books, comics, radio, and film. He is the author of Comics for Film, Games and Animation: Using Comics to Construct Your Transmedia Storyworld and the writer/co-creator of Whiz!Bam!Pow!  a story experience of family, forgery, death rays, secret codes, laundry chutes, and the Golden Age of Comics. You can find him on Twitter under the creative handle of @tylerweaver.

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For another perspective on the relationship between comics and transmedia, check out this video essay produced by Drew Morton as an expansion of his PhD Dissertation from the UCLA film school. Here, Morton offers a critique of transmedia storytelling (primarily based on the limits of The Matrix model) before delving deeper into the forms of remediation he associates with the comic book film. Using the translation of Scott Pilgrim vs. The World across media, he introduces the concept of transmedia style as a unifying factor, showing how aspects of comics, video games, popular music, and cinema merge to create a unique look and feel for this property. I was lucky enough to be on Morton’s dissertation committee so I am proud to be sharing this video with you today. It’s another great example of the kinds of video essays that UCLA faculty and students are exploring right now. Again, I think the compelling use of visual and audio evidence makes scholarly concepts more broadly accessible, and it produces something that can be taught in classes or as here, embedded into blogs where it will reach audiences that would never look at an academic journal.

 

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  1. [...] This interview was conducted in January, 2012. Excerpts from this interview originally appeared in Chapter 26 of Comics for Film, Games and Animation. Henry was also kind enough to interview me at his website, Confessions of an ACA/Fan. (Part One | Part Two). [...]