Comics as Poetry: An Interview With David Mack (Part Three)

“Contrast Is Everything”

HJ: While we’re on color, you clearly have thought deeply about color theory. What assumptions shape your choice of color schemes for your comics, and how do you think your approach differs from the way color gets used in mainstream superhero comics?

DM: I have a BFA in graphic design, which entailed taking all of the design classes and all of the fine arts classes, too. So I do have a lot of experience in the color wheel and what colors are complementary and color theory. That said, there’s probably a lot of intuition involved in it as well. For me, contrast is everything. Contrast with color. Contrast with panel layout. Essentially, when you’re composing panel layouts and using color in story, I think it’s probably akin to composing music, where there’s certain buildups to it and there’s certain lows and certain highs and there’s a certain crescendo to things. I think designing comic pages uses a similar kind of contrast. It’s all about creating a hierarchy on the page and a hierarchy in the story and directing the reader’s eye so that they finish a certain amount of things.

On a page, you want their eye to look at some panels longer than other panels and then to rest at certain place and have an access point at a certain place. So there is a hierarchy about the page that color plays an important part of. A bright color is going to grab the attention. You can have the majority of the page in muted tones, and then you can have a larger panel at the bottom. The size of that panel and the contrasting color is really going to be sort of your crescendo moment for that page. I think there’s a relationship between how long it takes you to make the drawing in the panel and how long someone reads it.


I think the less detail that is in this panel, the quicker it is going to be read. It still says everything it needs to say, but, if you want someone to read that panel quickly to get to the next one, don’t overdo it. If you want them to look at it longer, you put more time into that one. I love that contrast.

There’s another kind of contrast. You might render something a little bit more realistic in one image or use some photo reference in a close up so it feels like a real human, but you don’t want to do that in every panel because it’ll just cancel itself out. So, for contrast, you want the other things that are read more quickly to be more abstracted. Those go a little quicker, and then you sort of build up to something else, and color’s a part of that. When someone opens a book, you really see two pages at the same time. Sometimes, when you’re drawing, a lot of people just think they’re doing one page, but it’s really like a big meta page; you’re seeing those two pages at once. I’m very conscious of that when I work on pages. I work on the design as if someone’s looking at them, and I know the colors on this page have to work with and complement the colors on the opposite page. You want those to contrast, then, with the page they’re turning next, so that’ll be a surprise.

HJ: You touched on something I was going to ask you about. One of the striking features of your work is the constant shifts in modes of representation. Fairly realistic images exist alongside very abstracted images, sometimes of the same character on the same page. What do you see as the value of such varied techniques in shaping the reader’s experience of your work?

DM: I might do it to a greater degree from scene-to-scene. The Alchemy, for instance, probably has the most diverse approaches across the whole story, but each chapter has a visual metaphor. Each issue is a little different from the next issue. Within each issue, each scene changes quite a bit, and, you’re right, often on the same page. I use a certain amount of contrast.

When you boil it down, the lowest common denominator of a comic is what the reader fills in between the two images. If you have a panel that has a cat on the table, it’s just a cat on the table. Then, you have another picture that is a cat on the ground. On their own, that’s what they are. Next to each other, the reader says that cat jumped off the table, and now it’s on the ground. I think the same thing happens in terms of changing color or changing the way something is rendered. The reader processes that. You can do it incredibly overtly.

If you want to show a certain amount of emotional or psychological change in the character, you can do it pretty subtlety in certain degrees, and I think it’s another tool that the writer has to tell a story through implication, through just how the reader’s mind works. If it’s a shocking situation, I would draw the panel before the catalyst of shock happened in a different way than the one that where the shock happens. I might do the first one in pen and ink and make it more streamlined and calmer. Then, I might do the other one with a wash of watercolor or acrylic down over it. Then, maybe I’ll draw it jaggier in pencil or something like that when the moment of realization happens to the character. I don’t have to use any words and take any extra space in the page to tell what’s happening. I don’t even have to draw that differently. I can do it just by using a different medium or drawing it a little bit stranger. I think the reader processes it emotionally for the character. I think it’s just one of the assets that comic books as a medium have at their disposal.

Make Mine Marvel

HJ: One of the first places I became aware of your work were the covers for Alias, which is designed to signal a different kind of relationship to this comic. This is not your typical Marvel comic, and you get it just from seeing it on the stand next to the other Marvel titles. I wonder what thought went into the design of those covers.

DM: You’re absolutely right! That is an exact conversion that Brian Bendis and I had. I attribute that directly to him. Whether in person or on the phone, he told me almost exactly what you just said. He said, for the covers for Alias, it shouldn’t look like a comic book at all. Make these look like a book that you see when you walk into a bookstore. As soon as you see it, you know that Alias isn’t like any other book that Marvel has. And, often when I’m designing covers for comics, I very much am considering it’s the cover of the book and it’s what’s selling the book. It’s not just the book itself. You have to consider this in context of it being on the wall in a comic book shop next to 100 or more books, so you don’t necessarily want to use the same kind of mediums or designs that are being used in those other books. The nature of the cover is to make it jump out from all the things it’s next to, so I always think in those terms.

Brian was very specific about this one. He said, “Maybe for a different storyline, we could use a different set of media or different vibe.” Often, Brian suggested to me in detail what he wanted. Other times, he would just give me the script ahead of time, and he would just say, “Read the script and do whatever you want for it.” So, it was pretty half-and-half. There were issues where he’d be very specific. Rick Jones is like a folk singer, so for the cover of one issue, he said, “Make really crappy music flyers. Make them yourself. Make them at Kinko’s, and go post them on a pole somewhere on top of other ones. Take photos of that, and make that the cover.” So that’s what I did. I made flyers for the character in the story and then made a bunch of extra fake flyers, too, and I put them on a pole on top of all other real flyers in the middle of the rain and then staple-gunned it to the pole. They were wrinkled and rained on, and I took photos of it.

So there were times he wanted things for precisely for what the story was. Another time, there was a story where a girl was missing. They find her diary, so he said, for this, all the covers are pages from this girl’s diary. So I took a sketchbook, and I filled a complete sketchbook as if I were a teenage girl. These were his instructions: “Pretend you’re a teenage girl, and you’re really mad. Make a whole diary of this girl with all these drawings and clippings.’ So I did that without knowing which pages would be the cover. After I made that, I took photos of some of the pages and used them as covers for that issue series.

HJ: I am especially interested in the changes in style which occur when Joe Quesada is working from your script for Parts of a Hole. He seems to pull some of your techniques more into the mainstream of superhero illustration. What similarities and differences do you see in the techniques involved?

DM: That was such a great experience. I worked with Brian Bendis on Alias. For my first Daredevil story, I worked with Quesada – that was my first work ever for Marvel. I should say also that’s one of the wonderful things about comics in general and working at Marvel–the spirit of collaboration. I have the Kabuki books where I have 100% of everything entirely on my own, and there’re no editorial suggestions or anything. It’s great to have that. But it’s also really nice to have a project where you work with other people who are really bringing their A-game and bringing a whole other set of tools to the table that I wouldn’t have.

So, working with Joe was really wonderful. When I’m writing for another artist, I write differently than I would write for myself because I’m going to write what I think are maybe that person’s strong points from my perception, or those things that they would do better than I would do. I would write to convey that, and I would also have a conversation with Joe and say, ‘What would you like to draw from the story? What do you think you would really shine on? What do you think are aspects that you’re hoping to get out of this?” It’s just a great conversation to have. Working with Brian Bendis, I had that situation too.

Every time I would write for another artist, I would send them layouts. Not that I wanted to necessarily have them do what my layouts were, but some of the script was a little unconventional in terms of its description of pages. So I sent Joe layouts that just said, “The script is what it is, but this is to give you a sense of what I mean by that description. When I said the first panel was a puzzle piece over here and the second panel is a puzzle piece down here, this is what I’m thinking about.” Joe would take my layouts and use the best parts of or the parts he connected to. He would marry that to his own unique graphic sensibilities and create a hybrid art style, using some of the graphic things I was putting into the layouts and his own natural vibrancy, how he drew.

 

HJ: As you know, I am very interested in the aesthetic tensions which surrounded your work on Daredevil – especially the Vision Quest book. Can you provide some context as to how you were able to experiment so broadly within the parameters of the superhero comic?

DM: It’s interesting. That book originally was going to be an Echo limited series. I don’t know if you were aware of this. When I did that first Daredevil story, I asked Joe Quesada [by now, editor-in-chief for Marvel Comics], “What do you want out of this?” He said, “I want you to create a brand new character for Daredevil in the process.” It was right after Kevin Smith finished his Daredevil run, so I wanted to continue with what Kevin was doing and acknowledge that and incorporate it into the story. But Joe also wanted a brand new character. He said that a lot of Daredevil’s antagonists or villains are secondary Spider-Man characters that crossed over to this book, and he would like to see a new person unique to the Daredevil story. So that’s where Echo came from, in a way starting as a villain in the story but also a potential love interest.

After that story, he told me he was getting requests from other writers to use Echo in the Marvel Universe, but he said before he was going to give the okay to that, he hoped that I would do an Echo series to flesh her out a little bit more. He said, ‘It’s going to happen one way or another, but you should do an Echo series just to give her more of a back story before that starts happening more.” So I said, “Great,” and I put this Echo story together. Then I had a meeting with him in the office in New York, and he sat me down and said, “I know you wanted to do this Echo story, but we’re going to put it inside the panels of Daredevil. That way, it’ll give the regular team an extra five months to catch up and get ahead on things. He said, “Our Echo story was in there before, so I think it’ll still work. We did this before, and it’ll be like another fleshing out of Echo. If you could have a scene at the beginning and a scene at the end with Daredevil talking to Echo, that’ll segue it.’

That was purely a publishing situation, so I can’t fault anyone for that. But, as you’ve said, when someone’s reading a Daredevil comic that’s says “Daredevil” on it really big, they’re expecting to see Daredevil, and he’s really not in that story. I understand that could be a jarring situation for people because the main thing you want to get out of that comic is Daredevil. This story has a scene of Daredevil talking to Echo in the first issue and then one in the last issue, and he was there, here and there, through flashbacks. But I understand somebody feeling that, when they’re buying a Daredevil comic, they’re not trying to buy an Echo story. But that’s just the way it worked in that situation.


It was an interesting experiment. People are probably more willing to accept a change from the mainstream if it’s delineated in the title. And I think if people thought, “Oh, there’s an Echo story written and drawn by David Mack.” It probably wouldn’t be as jarring to them. But, because now it’s in the Daredevil series, there were a lot of people who loved it, and there were a lot of people who probably didn’t know why those issues were featuring an Echo story in between the current Daredevil story. In comic books, there’s brand new readers every issue. Those people were probably asking, “What’s going on? There was a Daredevil cliffhanger, and now there’s this story about another person. I understand that kind of criticism. I felt like it was able to find its readership, and I find there were a lot of people that connected to it and got something from it.

HJ: Some have compared Vision Quest with Bill Sienkiewicz’s Elektra: Assassin, which also applied avant-garde techniques to this particular franchise. Was this a parallel that occurred to you as you were working on this book? If so, how would you compare your work with Sienkiewicz’s?

DM: I have a very good relationship with that book. In fact, I’m pretty good friends with Bill Sienkiewicz now, and I was having a conversation with him about this just last night. He’s been super nice to me, but I was probably pretty young when I read that. I was probably 11 or 12 when I saw that first Elektra: Assassin book, and I was fascinated by it. It was beyond my experience. It was beyond my comfort zone. So, at first, maybe I wasn’t sure what to think of it, but then I really appreciated it.

The first Daredevil story I ever read was a Frank Miller story. It was that one with The Punisher in it, from an “Angel Dust” story, in maybe 1982. I was at a friend’s house, and they had this comic book. I had never read a comic book. I was nine years old. I open up this book, and I thought that comics would be like Super Friends. So, it was one of those things where it was expectations versus what something is. I had seen some cartoons here and there at friends’ houses. So, I pick up his comic book and, instead of someone in a cape with a letter on their chest, there’s a guy dressed as a devil with horns on his head as the hero, and there was another guy with a skull on his chest just shooting people. It was almost frightening to me as a child. It was a story about drugs and angel dust, and children were selling drugs to children and dying. It was really outside my comfort zone. I wasn’t sure what to make of it.

Then, in some strange turn of chance maybe two or three years later, I was in a second-hand store–a St. Vincent De Paul–and I found the exact next issue of that book. By then, I was like 12 years old, and I picked it up. I could handle it then. It made sense to me. I saw the brilliance in it, and I loved it. Then, I started trying to find back issues of Frank Miller’s Daredevil, and there was something about those issues that I can never escape that probably informs my work in ways that I’ll never even be conscious of.

I remember being in the secondhand store, looking at this book and realizing that someone made these shadows and this lighting and that the shapes of the panels were all designed by the writer on purpose because they were communicating something. I thought it would be all bright colors as a kid, and I realized all these shadows and all this very iconic kind of architecture to this book was making me feel something. I think that’s when I clicked for me, that the writer can use all of this–the weather, lighting, shadows–as storytelling.

I had similar experience in a different way when I saw the Elektra: Assassin books. All those people that I have been inspired by…there’s a great many. Comic books have a great many giants. I think, when you’re doing something in a medium that has all these wonderful people before you, it’s up to you to stand on the shoulders of those giants and then try to bring something of your own to it as well.

MORE TO COME

Comics as Poetry: An Interview with David Mack (Part Two)

Influences – East and West

HJ: Kabuki includes several pastiches of children’s books, at least one of which has been published independently and can function as a type of children’s book. You seem to be suggesting that we are strongly shaped by the books we read as children. Can you share some of your thoughts on the nature of children’s literature? What books influenced you as a child?

DM: Our childhood reading does probably have more of an influence certainly than you’re conscious of at the time, and I will often look back at things and realize that there’s certain things in those formative years that you can’t ever escape¬–those first stories you hear about. My introduction to literature was the Bible. My mother would read me Bible stories all the time, and I was very familiar with all the Bible stories. That was a very big part of the way I grew up. There’s a certain kind of storytelling structure and a certain kind of hero’s journey in Biblical stories that, without even realizing, I probably encrypted into a lot of the stories I’m doing.

Then also, there was Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan and Doctor Seuss. I read those books when I was very young, and I like that mythical, haunting, fairy-tale quality. And I did very consciously use those impressions in a lot of the Kabuki tales. Every one of the Kabuki tales– even the ones that don’t have actual children’s book stories in them–have quite a bit of children’s book literature and fairytale allegory inside them.

When I wrote the first installments of Kabuki, I was taking Western literature, but I was also very influenced by Eastern literature. There’s a lot of Japanese children’s books that we would probably consider gruesome and really far out that were fascinating to me also. There was this book of hells that children read, and each hell represents a different punishment.

While incorporating some Eastern things in it, such as the structure of the Japanese ghost story, the first volume of Kabuki also in its structure incorporates Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. I was very much thinking of Alice in Wonderland as this allegory of a story from childhood to adult consciousness: think about the chessboard where Alice starts as a pawn, but, if you make it all the way across the board, then that pawn, the least powerful piece on the board, can then become the most powerful piece, a grownup. You can become Queen, and you can move all the way across the board. That was a visual metaphor I was using in the first Kabuki volume.

Kabuki starts as a pawn, and then, eventually, she’s working for the system that she serves in the beginning. She crosses over and comes into direct conflict with the system she serves based on new values that she develops, and she starts using her power to go in the other direction. There’s a visual correspondence between each of the characters in the early Kabuki stories and characters from Alice in Wonderland. There’s a set of twins called Siamese which are Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum. Scarab, a character in Kabuki, is the beetle in Wonderland. Tiger Lily and Snap Dragon are named after characters in the Garden of Talking Flowers. The General character is the Humpty Dumpty character. These kinds of borrowings from childhood stories hold a lot of feeling and power. They help me to capture the mystery we feel toward the world when we are still children. I want that sense of childhood wonderment to haunt the reader as they read my stories.

HJ: Clearly, Japanese culture has exerted a strong influence on your work – both classical cultural influences such as Noh and Kabuki as well as more contemporary media practices such as the media mix associated with anime and manga. How did you become so invested in Japanese art and culture? How has it influenced both the form and content of your work?

DM: When I was in college, in my painting and drawing class, there was a fellow from Japan that I became friends with. We had to take a foreign language. Since I had taken Spanish in high school, I thought I’d take Japanese because of my friend and his family and the culture of international students that he introduced me to. I had a lot of Japanese friends, and I’d have access to practice it with my friends. And then I became more fascinated with Japan and ended up taking courses in Japanese history and mythology, and my friend was always there to answer my questions firsthand.

I did the first Kabuki volume when I was in college. I wanted to develop a book where I felt like I could tell personal stories about things that I was interested in. I was a big fan of autobiographical comics, but, at the time, I didn’t feel un-self-conscious enough to do a fully autobiographical book. I was a big fan of American Splendor, and I liked Joe Matt’s Peep Show, and I got Ivan Brunnetti’s Schizo. I loved these fantastic autobiographical stories where you take what might seem like the mundane, but you show the fascinating in it. It’s more fascinating because it’s so from the soul and it’s so un-self conscious.

But I was 19, 20 years old and I didn’t feel un-self-conscious enough, and I didn’t even feel fully enough formed as a human to feel like I had that much of a voice to be able to do it that way. So I felt like that quote from Shakespeare: “Give a man a mask, and he’ll tell you the truth.” I didn’t want to do a fully autobiographical story but rather something that would give me a license to feel comfortable enough to talk about personal things. I didn’t want to make the main character an idealized version of myself. That could be a danger if it was a male protagonist. So I made it a female protagonist. I set it in a different part of the world.

I was immersed in learning about Japan, traveling, and learning the language, so I used these metaphors and this mythology from Japan that’s so fascinating to me as the structure to tell this story through. Doing this gave me the liberty to be able to do a story that people didn’t have to look at and see me in it, but maybe it was universal enough for them to see themselves in it if it was done right.

Alchemy, Improvization, and Process

HJ: The word “alchemy” crops up often, both in your work and in reference to your work. What does this word mean to you, and to what degree do you see your aesthetics as part of an alchemical process?

DM: I like alchemy as a metaphor for making comics. You turn base metals into gold. When you’re creating something, you start with a piece of paper or pen or whatever it is that you start with. By the time you’re finished, hopefully something of value has been produced from it. But, in terms of content, I like the idea that, even if you’re writing about something that’s troubling to you or that you’re coming to terms with, through the creative process you can often turn that into something that’s an asset to you or even helpful to other people or at least entertaining and fun for them. I like that kind of metaphor – transforming pain into something of value through the creative process So Alchemy is a metaphor for that interesting place that you get into when you’re making something. You can think about it, and you can plan it as much as you want, but, when you’re actually in the act of doing it, new stuff happens that you could not have anticipated. For me, I can have an analytical mind where I can plan as much as I want to. But in actually doing it, the act of creation is also a collaboration with another part of myself that I don’t always have constant access to, but it shows up when you’re doing it. I like that space.

HJ: You’ve written that images and incidents often get shuffled as you dig deeper into each new work in the Kabuki series. This is certainly an approach enabled by your more stream-of-consciousness style narratives, but it also suggests to me a kind of improvisational approach to artistic expression. What role does chance and intuition play in your creative process?

DM: That’s a good question. Some people often say, “Do you work through a stream-of-consciousness, or were you just making stuff as you go?” At the stage where you’re doing notes, that’s completely true. Any time an idea occurs to me, I write it down. Even if an idea occurs to me for a story I know I won’t even have time to do for a few years from now, I have a filing system. So I just write this idea down, and I put it in the file. In the case of when I was doing Alchemy, for instance, I knew I wanted to do this next story. Every time I had an idea for what this next story was, I wrote it on a napkin or wherever, put it in my file, and said, “This is the next Kabuki story.”

Years later, when it comes time to do it, I pull it out, and I have 200 pieces of little papers that have ideas on them–most of which I don’t remember writing. Then, it’s a great opportunity, because this previous version of myself has really helped out the present version of myself. Now, I have all these pieces of paper and can decide which of these belong in the story and which of these don’t belong in here at all. With the ones that are left, what order should they go in? I’m faced with the task of connecting the dots and filling in the spaces in between. That’s a really fun stage for me. I really like that conceptual stage.

Once I get that together, I write a pretty detailed script for myself. I do several drafts of it. In fact, in the script, there might be visual solutions that occur to me. I will make notes that might say, “This scene is about this, so use this mobius strip thing,” or “This scene is about unfolding into something else, so use these panels that become a two-dimensional cube and three-dimensional panels.” So, there’s quite a lot of academic and analytical build-up to it. With that said, there’s always room for spontaneity. When I actually am doing it, I do think of new ideas, and I do start to move things around.

The first Kabuki book was in black-and-white, but the next volume I did was the first where I was doing all the color. When I did all the layouts, they all made sense in a certain order, but, when I put them together in color, one scene was done with a certain set of colors and the next scene a different way, and I felt like “this page” next to “that page” doesn’t look nearly as good as I thought they would just based on the geometric layout that I had thought worked really well. I might not have known why this didn’t look quite as good, so I laid out all the pages around my wall or around my desk where I was working, and I’d start taking one page and putting it next to another In the process, I’d go, “Oh, it looks actually better next to this page,” and then I’d find another page where I’d go, “Oh, it looks so much better.” Then, I started rearranging all the pages and said, “They look twice as good this way as they did that way. I have to do it this way.” I would then ask, “Well, can that actually work?”

So I found a way to accommodate the script and the story to fit the change in page order, and I found that it made the script more interesting to me, anyway. I had to do a certain amount of work to finesse it to make it work. Since that time, any time I do a book in color, there are at least one or two pages that I end up changing the order of once the pages are finished. Usually, it adds something to the storytelling. I usually think it’s a more interesting way to tell the story when it happens, but I’m probably making it sound easier and simpler than it really is. There’s a lot of detail in making it work, too.

MORE TO COME

Comics as Poetry: An Interview with David Mack (Part One)

The following interview with the comic book artist David Mack appeared in a special issue of the journal, Amerikastudien American Studies, focused on “American Comic Books and Graphic Novels.” This special issue was edited by Daniel Stein, Christina Meyer, and Micha Edlich. Other contributions to the issue include discussions of Grant Morrison and Dave McKean’s Arkham Asylum (James F. Wurtz), Arab and Muslim Superheroes in American Comics after 9/11 (Fredrik Stromberg), David Small’s Stitches (Astrid Boger), Howard Cruise’s Stuck Rubber Baby (Simon Dickel), focalization in comics narrative (Kai Mikkonen), and teaching graphic novels in the ESL classroom (Carola Hecke). This interview is being reprinted here with the special permission of the editors.

Most comics are written in prose – more often than not purple prose. They are telling us larger-than-life stories that draw us into close identifications with their characters and immerse us in their world. David Mack (best known for his creator-owned comic series, Kabuki) creates comics that are much closer to poetry. As he suggests later in this interview, the difference has to do with the process of compression on the production side, trying to pack as much meaning into his images as possible, and decryption on the reception side, inviting us to scrutinize the complexly layered images in search of hidden meanings which may emerge only upon the second or third readings.
As an artist, Mack is surprisingly self-conscious about the reading process and about what his fans bring to their experience of his work. In some cases, he draws materials directly from his fans, which he integrated into his collage-like designs. In every case, he argues that the alchemical process of creating meaning through the juxtaposition of words and images is not complete until the page has been processed through the eye and mind of the beholder. For him, the comics page is both raw material out of which the reader produces meaning and a byproduct which can be appreciated on its own terms only after the story has been consumed.

Mack began publishing Kabuki in 1994 while he was still completing a BFA in Graphic Arts at Northern Kentucky University. His close association with Brian Michael Bendis, the award-winning author famous for his work on the Ultimate Spider-Man series, opened up opportunities for Mack at the industry heavyweight Marvel Comics, where he drew covers for Bendis’s Alias and contributed as both a writer and artist to the popular Daredevil series.

What strikes one about David Mack’s career is his ability to move between mainstream and independent comics, often creating surprising hybrid forms where avant-garde practices are applied to the superhero characters who are Marvel’s cash cow. His own Kabuki comics are dazzling in their innovative use of techniques , including the incorporation of everything from tea stains to toy train tracks, into his visual collages, and in his exploration of complex ideas, including those about subjectivity and the experience of mediation. Over the course of the story, his protagonist, a Japanese woman, is a paid assassin in a criminal network, the fictionalized character in a mass media franchise, a prisoner trying to survive, a children’s book author, and a leader in a resistance movement. Each volume introduced new genre and narrative elements, while encouraging us to reread what came before through new conceptual lens.

However, Mack seems equally at home working for Marvel, collaborating as consummate a mainstream craftsman as Joe Quesada (who is now Editor-in-Chief at Marvel) or as commercial a comics author as Bendis. Sometimes, Mack’s interventions into the comics mainstream strike controversy because he is asking readers to embrace a style that takes them out of their comfort zone. Behind these interventions, however, there is a deep respect for the pulp traditions out of which these characters and stories have emerged. Many experimental comics creators seek to escape from the superhero tradition, while Mack hopes to bring something back to it from his own independent practices, adding new layers to our understanding of its iconic characters and expanding its visual vocabulary to create new kinds of emotional experiences for the reader.

I was lucky enough to snag some time with Mack in the aftermath of 2010 San Diego Comic-Con. Sitting in my hotel room in San Diego, Mack shared with me his reflections on everything from his first experiences with comics (and the childhood stories which have shaped his imagination) to his creative process and aesthetic practices. What emerges is a complex picture of a comics artist and storyteller of the highest caliber, someone who is constantly pushing beyond the conventions and limitations of American comic’s dominant genres, experimenting and innovating inside the commercial mainstream and on the fringe, trying to expand the expressive vocabulary of his medium and, in the process, to use the corporate machine to deliver his own distinctive perspective on American culture.

Comics, the Subversive Art

HJ: In Kabuki: The Alchemy, the writer Kabuki meets on the airplane notes that “most widely distributed media tend to be decision by committee. They are beholden to the various interests of a conglomerate umbrella company…Comics are a subversive medium capable of great communication and cultural influence. The format affords an individual to voice a singular vision on an international scale under the radar of big business interests and federal regulation.” Does this reflect your own thoughts about how comics function as a medium?

DM: I’m able to put into the book characters that have strong points of view. You can put one character with a strong view next to another, and you get to have them brush up against each other. Some people think this character is my definite point of view, but it allows me a playground to let these points of view go against each other. When I say it’s a subversive medium, I mean it in two different ways. One has to do with the comics industry as a distribution system, and the other has to do with the way comics work as a medium and how people read them.

As a distribution system, comics are unlike radio or TV where you have a license and regulations and people overseeing you or film distribution where there is a certain amount of money and system involved before you can do anything. One person in their basement can have an idea and immediately make a complete story and reach a pretty fair amount of people through comics – whether the kind you print off and staple together at Kinko’s or the kind you make and distribute through the web. Comics are one of the last pirate media. One person can go and immediately just have an idea in his attic and make a book, and it can be out there. This is why some of the other media, like film and television, use comics as a research and development platform to a degree. I just started making mini-comics and showing that to publishers. I don’t even know if a lot of times what I’m doing can even be classified as comics. I let other people decide what the category is, but I have been able to infiltrate the delivery system that’s there.

And the other way I think comics are subversive has to do with the nature of the medium of comics. Comics start with two images, each slightly different from what came before, but, when you put these two images together, it’s just human nature to construct a dialogue between them. We construct a continuity: whatever happens in this image was before in time, and this happens after it. Nothing’s moving at all; nothing’s said in between. Even if things are completely different from this panel to that panel, our natural instinct is to construct order out of that juxtaposition and to create a narrative in between those images. So what I love about comics is that the readers themselves are really making what’s happening in comics in their own mind. When comics are done right, when they meet the reader halfway, when they don’t give too much… I think if they give the reader too much information, the readers don’t have to use their minds as much. But, if you finesse it and give them just the right amount, the readers then really start actively completing everything inside their minds. This makes the reader an active participant in what’s happening.

HJ: There is an ongoing concern in Kabuki about corporate-controlled media, with entertainment as a form of propaganda, yet you have also chosen to work often for Marvel – one of the two biggest publishers in comics, a company now owned by the Disney corporation. How do you reconcile these two positions?

DM: Kabuki itself is published through Marvel. I started Kabuki as a series of mini-comics, and then I started doing it at a small publisher called Caliber Comics in the early 90s that had published The Crow, and I moved to a larger company (Image) in 1997. And then Brian Bendis, Mike Oeming, and I formed an imprint at Marvel Comics called Icon in 2004 to bring our creator-owned comics to Marvel. Marvel Comics has now been bought by Disney. We were able to carve out a niche at Marvel–a little compartment for creator-owned comic books. We’re given complete autonomy in terms of what we do.

People ask me, “Are you concerned with giving up your rights?” You don’t have to give up any rights–you only give up rights that you agree to give up. And, so we made a contract where we weren’t giving up any rights, and Marvel worked with that. Marvel provides us with distribution and access to their readership and their delivery system, and I guess Marvel felt like us being there was some advantage to them as well. But people ask me that a lot: “Is there some editorial control because it’s a bigger company?” In fact, I don’t think they care. I do a complete Kabuki story. I turn in a finished book. They don’t look at it ahead of time, and they don’t look at it afterwards. Some editors look at the finished story itself, but they don’t give any suggestions at all for creator-owned comics.

I like the idea that you’re living inside a system whether you like it or not. So you have to cohabitate with that system, and hopefully you can meet halfway at certain times, and, hopefully…maybe…you can even influence it to a degree or at least influence the people that are part of its delivery system.

HJ: As The Alchemy continues, it is clear that you also see popular culture as a site of potential resistance to corporate and governmental control. Can you speak to the ways you see popular culture as a potential resource for the people who consume it? Where do your theories of media and cultural change come from?

DM: One of the major themes of the story is that we don’t just have to consume the culture that we are offered, we can create our own culture.
I’m not as interested in consuming a culture that is offered to me and made by someone else for me to buy. I’m much more interested in works and literature, and culture that inspires me to create my own offerings that will be useful to others, and to be an active and meaningful participant in cultural creation.

The Alchemy story deals with two issues of resistance. The external resistance
from an outside power as you mentioned, but also an internal resistance that we face whenever we try to create something. There is a kind of self-censorship people sometimes have built into them. And an “object at rest, tends to remain at rest” force that offers a lot of rational reasons of why not to create what you think of creating, why not to fulfill all of your best and wildest dreams.

Before you ever get the external part, you need to overcome all of these internal walls to actually begin, complete, make real, or share all of your best ideas.
The Alchemy chronicles characters dealing with both of these internal and external battles of control and influence.

As for your question about external media influence… I don’t self-analyze that a lot, but, if I were to…I should say, first of all, I grew up without any television. When I grew up, there was no television in my home. I didn’t get my first television until I got my first comic book paycheck. I was in college the first time I started seeing television a lot. Even when I was in first grade, I felt like I was missing out on some culture that all the other children were talking about. “Oh, did you see that show last night? This happened.” I never knew what they were talking about all the time. So, I did feel a certain distance from other people when they were constantly referencing things and I had no idea what they were talking about. On the other hand, I didn’t have that built-in acceptance of what television and TV commercials are when I started seeing more of television when I was in college.

When I was in college, the first Gulf War was starting, and it was on CNN all the time. There was a TV in the lounge in my building in college, and I would see all these television shows I was fascinated with. I remember I was fascinated with this TV show called Cops that was big at the time. Here’s a television show that we considered entertainment, but we’re also seeing first-person points-of-view of the legal system in action. I wasn’t sure if I was comfortable with the legal system being a form of entertainment and being strictly from one point of view. It made me feel very strange. Then, it cuts to a commercial and sells you something. Other people seemed to be a little more used to the commercials, but the commercials were really strange. Watching this many commercials on TV was a little weirder to me than other people seemed to think.
As the Gulf War was launching, there was this big build-up through CNN. The next thing you would see was a very similar show to Cops, but now it was first-person point-of-view of the world police. You see all these first-person point-of-view bombings and, at times, the war even felt like a video games. I was fascinated, but I was also outside my comfort zone.

I don’t know if I was conscious at the time of the connection, but certainly a degree of that experience went into the early books of Kabuki. Where the Kabuki books began, there’s an inter-dependence between a criminal element and a government element, and there’s an agency that polices that independence, but they are also part of the television and media conglomerate which shares a first-person point-of-view television show on their criminal activities. Kabuki was very consciously inspired by George Orwell and 1984, but I probably could not escape the effect that CNN and the Cops TV show and my introduction to more television and commercials were having on the way I saw the world. Comics were my playground to sort through all of that stuff.

MORE TO COME

Videos for Transmedia Hollywood 4: Spreading Change

On behalf of the conference organizers, I am proud to be able to share with you today the videos of our April 12 Transmedia Hollywood 4 conference. As many regular readers know, this event is run jointly by myself, representing USC’s Cinema School, and Denise Mann, representing our counterparts at UCLA and it is funded by a grant from the Andrew J. Kuehn Jr. Foundation. This year’s focus was on models of social change, and we were excited to see a conversation emerge across the four panels, starting with panel 1’s focus on the community outreach efforts of major brands and studios, panel 2’s focus on smaller scale transmedia projects and entertainment education, panel 3’s attention to grassroots activist efforts, and panel 4’s consideration of young entrepreneurs and philanthropists. Each of the panels is interesting in its own right, but those who attended the event agreed that there was something magical about how the parts came together as a whole this year. I want to specially think David McKenna who worked around the clock to get these videos up and out to the world in record time. Enjoy.

Panel 1 Revolutionary Advertising: Cultivating Cultural Movements
In the web 2.0 era, as more and more millennials acquire the tools of participatory culture and new media literacy, some of this cohort are redirecting their one-time leisure-based activities into acts of community-based, grassroots social activism. Recognizing the power of the crowd to create a tipping point in brand affiliation, big media marketers, Silicon Valley start-ups, and members of the Madison Avenue advertising community, are jumping on board these crowdsourcing activities to support their respective industries. In other words, many of the social goals of grassroots revolutionaries are being realigned to serve the commercial goals of brand marketers. In the best-case scenarios, the interests of the community and the interests of the market economy align in some mercurial fashion to serve both constituencies. However, in the worst case scenario, the community-based activism fueling social movements is being redirected to support potato chips, tennis shoes, or sugary-soda drinks. Brand marketers are intrigued with the power and sway of social media, inaugurating any number of trailblazing forms of interactive advertising and branded entertainment to replace stodgy, lifeless, 30 second ads. These cutting edge madmen are learning how to reinvent entertainment for the participatory generation by marrying brands to pre-existing social movements to create often impressive, well-funded brand movements like Nike Livestrong, or Pepsi Refresh. Are big media marketers subsuming the radical intent of certain community-based organizations who are challenging the status quo by redirecting them into unintentional alliance with big business or are they infusing these cash-strapped organizations with much needed funds and marketing outreach? Today’s panel of experts will debate these and other issues associated with the future of participatory play as a form of social activism.Todd CunninghamFormerly, Senior Vice-President of Strategic Insights and Research at MTV Networks.

Denise Mann (Moderator)

Co-Director, Transmedia, Hollywood / Associate Professor, Head of Producers Program, UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television

Rob Schuham
CEO, Action Marketing

Michael Serazio
Author, Your Ad Here: The Cool Sell of Guerrilla Marketing

Alden E. Stoner
VP, Social Action Film Campaigns, Participant Media

Rachel Tipograph
Director, Global Digital and Social Media at Gap Inc.

Transmedia, Hollywood 4: Spreading Change. Panel 1 – Revolutionary Advertising: Creating Cultural Movements from UCLA Film & TV on Vimeo.

Panel 2 Transmedia For a Change

Hollywood’s version of transmedia has been preoccupied with inspiring fan engagement, often linked to the promotional strategies for the release of big budget media. But, as transmedia has spread to parts of the world which have been dominated by public service media, there has been an increased amount of experimentation in ways that transmedia tactics can be deployed to encourage civic engagement and social awareness. These transmedia projects can be understood as part of a larger move to shift from understanding public media as serving publics towards a more active mission in gathering and mobilizing publics. These projects may also be understood as an extension of the entertainment education paradigm into the transmedia realm, where the goal shifts from informing to public towards getting people participating in efforts to make change in their own communities. In some cases, these producers are creating transmedia as part of larger documentary projects, but in others, transmedia is making links between fictional content and its real world implications.

Panelists
Henry Jenkins (Moderator)
Co-Director, Transmedia, Hollywood / Provost Professor of Communication, Journalism, and Cinematic Arts, USC Annenberg School for Communication

Katerina Cizek
Filmmaker-in-Residence, National Film Board, Canada

Katie Elmore Mota
Producer, CEO of PRAJNA Productions

Sam Haren
Creative Director, Sandpit

Mahyad Tousi
Founder, BoomGen Studios

Transmedia, Hollywood 4: Spreading Change. Panel 2 – Transmedia for a Change from UCLA Film & TV on Vimeo.

Panel 3: Through Any Media Necessary: Activism in a DIY Culture
A recent survey released by the MacArthur Foundation found that a growing number of young people are embracing practices the researchers identified as “participatory politics”: “interactive, peer-based acts through which individuals and groups seek to exert both voice and influence on issues of public concern.” These forms of politics emerge from an increasingly DIY media culture, linked in important ways to the practices of Makers, Hackers, Remix Artists and Fan Activists. This panel will bring together some key “change agents,” people who are helping to shape the production and flow of political media, or who are seeking to better understand the nature of political participation in an era of networked publics. Increasingly, these new forms of activism are both transmedia (in that they construct messages through any and all available media) and spreadable (in that they encourage participation on the level of circulation even if they do not always invite the public to help create media content).

Panelists:

Megan M. Boler
Professor and Associate Chair, Department of Humanities, Social Sciences, and Social Justice Education OISE/University of Toronto

Marya Bangee
Community Organizing Residency (COR) Fellow, OneLA, Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF)

Erick Huerta
Immigrant’s rights activist

Jonathan MacIntosh
Pop Culture Hacker and Transformative Storyteller

Sangita Shreshtova (Moderator)
Research Director of Media Activism & Participatory Politics (MAPP) project, USC Annenberg School of Communications and Journalism

Elisabeth Soep
Research Director and Senior Producer at Youth Radio-Youth Media International

Transmedia, Hollywood 4: Spreading Change. Panel 3 – By Any Media Necessary: Activism in a DIY Culture from UCLA Film & TV on Vimeo.


Panel 4 The e-Entrepreneur as the New Philanthropist

Nonprofit organizations are increasingly thinking like entrepreneurial start-ups and vice-versa, as young people are starting organizations which embrace the notion of the “consumer-citizen,” modeling ways that social-change efforts can be embedded within the everyday lifestyles of their supporters. While the boomers treated the cultural movements of the late sixties as a cause, today’s e-citizens are treating their social activism as a brand. They are selling social responsibility as if it were a commodity or product, using the same strategies that traditional business men and women used to sell products.

Sarah Banet-Weiser
Professor, USC Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism and Department of American Studies and Ethnicity

Sean D. Carasso
Founder, Falling Whistles

Yael Cohen
Founder/CEO, Fuck Cancer

Ann Pendleton-Jullian (Moderator)
Professor, Knowlton School of Architecture, The Ohio State University, and Distinguished Visting Professor, Georgetown University

Milana Rabkin
Digital Media Agent

Transmedia, Hollywood 4: Spreading Change. Panel 4, The e-Entrepreneur as the New Philanthropist from UCLA Film & TV on Vimeo.

“Same Old Shit!”: Fan Resistance at Wrestlemania 29 (Part Two)

 

Wrestlemania 2

The best wrestling performers know how to work with the audience, pumping them up or reacting on the fly to their moods. When we visited the Fan Axxcess event the day before, we saw some of the wrestlers from the WWE’s NXT school training. You could see that they were all working to learn how to communicate emotions through broad gestures and facial expressions that could be read by fans on the other side of the auditorium; they were working to develop a recognizable personality through which they could deliver those stock gestures and devices. And we saw people at various stages of development, including a few who had appeared prematurely on the WWE’s main stage and then been sent back down for retooling because they couldn’t deliver what was expected of them. For the most part, they were performing in character, but not really reaching across the fourth wall and engaging with the audience.

A great wrestler knows how to pull that off. I was impressed, again, with the melodramatic elements of the Jack Swagger vs. Alberto Del Rio match. Here, we saw a kind of classic “agit-prop.”

When I got pulled into WWE years ago, it was by waking up on a Saturday morning to hear the show-down between Hulk Hogan and Sgt. Slaughter. Slaughter was an American soldier who had been brainwashed by the Iraqis; Hulk was seeking to protect the American spirit and inspire the young “Hulkamaniacs,” especially those whose parents were fighting overseas. This was in the midst of the first Gulf War, and the storyline seemed well designed to play upon the emotions of the spectators.

The Swagger fight was equally of-the-moment: Swagger and his manager, Zeb Colter, represent the Tea Party. Their patter emphasizes the nativist side of the Tea Party. They wrap themselves in the American Flag and chant “We the People,” yet they are militantly anti-immigrant. So, in New Jersey, they rode out in a military vehicle and Zeb began to denounce people who speak Spanish, Italian, Greek, and finally, Yiddish, with the crowd booing louder and louder with each new prejudice. Then, Del Rio was introduced as a Mexican-American success story, reading aloud the inscription on the Statue of Liberty, and talking about how much he loves his new country. The effect on the crowd around us was visceral. For the most part, the crowd was playing their parts, booing the Tea Party and cheering the Mexicans. Add to this mix Del Rio’s announcer, Ricardo Rodriguez, who wobbled out on crutches, having been mercilessly attacked by Swagger on Raw a few weeks before, and you had a classic melodrama.

I was struck by two specific fans in the crowd. Behind us, there was a massive black guy who was standing up on his seat and chanting “white power” in response to Swagger. It was clearly a self-consciously ironic performance. But, then, across the aisle from us, there was this knot-head who keep chanting “USA, USA, USA”, and it was not clear to me where he was coming from. We were holding up a sign which jokingly read, “If Swagger wins I’ll move to Canada”. He was enraged that we were holding up a Canadian sign. I definitely thought from the way he harassed us that he might well be celebrating Swagger without any sense that he was the heel in this particular match. But here, the line between reality and performance was blurred beyond recognition.

I thought Cena’s performance on Raw after Wrestlemania was striking. It’s clear he knows that many of the hardcore fans don’t like him, and he was playing into this, giving people reasons to boo and reasons to cheer in more or less equal measures. Above all, he was seeking to bring on the heat and provoke as loud of a reaction as he could.

It’s the most dignified thing he can do. Most of those fans aren’t going to cheer for him. If he begs for their approval then he’ll look pathetic. By re-framing the boos as a sign of his success or proof of the fans’ passion for him he saves some face.

I’ve found the Del Rio-Swagger feud to be very polarizing among fans. Trust me: I wish the audience was eating it up. I like it. But here’s what I see instead: Everyone has a different opinion. Some fans like us think it’s a cool story and admire the way all of the performers are playing their parts. Other fans think the whole story is in poor taste. They say they watch escapist TV to get away from the ugliness, racism and political deadlock of the evening news. Some fans feel offended by Del Rio’s Mexican character because they view him as a stereotypical immigrant. Others – perhaps like the bald dickhead who was yelling at you for waving a Canada sign – more or less agree with Jack Swagger’s frustration with immigrants, or refuse to boo the USA and cheer Mexico. From an artistic standpoint I think it’s great that this story is challenging the audience. The WWE should be telling this story. But the result has been that crowds been restless, and their vocal reaction has been kind of muddled. You’re hearing weak boos for Swagger intermingling with weak “USA! USA!” chants. None of that reads well on TV.

As for the minor league wrestlers from NXT I agree with everything you said. It’s very cool to see these guys so early in their careers. All of today’s top superstars, including John Cena, The Rock and CM Punk, trained somewhere. There is an audience of fans out there who is even more interested in watching unknown athletes in the small independent wrestling promotions than in watching the established stars, and for much the same reasons that there’s an audience might prefer home town indy rockers to famous pop stars. They can watch the action really close up, even catch a few words with them in between performances. Pose for a picture, sign an autograph. Scout the talent. There’s a romance and simplicity to the trainees. They’re sacrificing a lot for their dream.
I don’t personally focus on indy wrestling. I only have so many hours to devote to wrestling, and I prefer the grand spectacle of the WWE. But I get why so many fans prefer the indies.

Yes, like any other fandom, the WWE fans incorporate a range of interests and different forms of subcultural knowledge. In many fandoms, the result is fragmentation and individualization. Yet, this may be one of the reasons I am so interested in the collective dimensions of fan response – the shouts and chants at the match require a high degree of cooperation. There are certainly moments where two fractions play against each other in a kind of call-response fashion. So, “Let’s Go Cena” is followed by “Cena Sucks” or “Undertaker” is followed by “CM Punk”, with two sides working together to create a rhythmic dialogue. There are other times these factions are set against each other with boos and cheers trying to drown each other out.

Yet, often, everyone joins in a shared response – or at least a large segment of the crowd does. That response may represent a consensus which has been hammered out online and then expressed spontaneously at ringside. So, “boring” may be an aesthetic reaction to the performance, but it seems grounded in shared criteria, or “same old shit” seems like a spontaneous response to the scripting and the plot, but it often reflects the fans’ disappoint that the more imaginative speculations discussed online haven’t panned out. Some of the chants represent the shared lore of the wrestling fans, so they may chant the name of the referees or the announcers, rather than the wrestlers in the ring, and that seems to require a deeper, inside knowledge than most casual fans would possess.

There seem to be certain basic chants which may persist even when the wrestlers they are associated with are no longer performing. It seems the crowd will use any excuse to go into Ric Flair’s characteristic hooting sound. At the same time, we can see processes which support innovation. So, someone may try out a new chant or gesture. If it seems to express something the crowd cares about at that moment, it may start to spread really rapidly. Some of the best contributions become part of the collective repertoire and may resurface at other events around the country (especially if the chant is clearly audible on the television broadcast). As we’ve suggested, sometimes, this is about playing along with the official storyline and sometimes, it may be about resisting or playing against the dominant narrative.

All of this brings us to the now legendary crowd responses on the RAW after Wrestlemania. You and I, alas, had to fly back to LA for our respective jobs, though you caught some of that broadcast via the airplane’s media system (thank you, Virgin Atlantic) and I caught up with much of it on Tivo later. Can you share some of your impressions of what was going on there?

 

Let me answer that in a round-about way. Every year there are literally dozens of wrestling shows and conventions booked to coincide with Wrestlemania weekend. Virtually every regional/independent group in the country travels to the host city to perform at some small boxing gym or other dive. Past stars like Hulk Hogan and Bret Hart sell tickets for intimate Q&A sessions (to fund their retirement years.) WrestleCon is a whole fan convention which brings in past legends. A lot of these individual performances only draw 100 people. Then everyone comes together for Wrestlemania.

 

Met

You’d think that the crowd response for the big event would be through the roof, but that’s usually not the case. Part of it’s the acoustics of the space. When you’re in an open-air venue like MetLife Stadium the crowd noise travels upward into the sky instead of echoing around an enclosed arena. Part of it’s that the core fanbase is already worn out from the past few days, and just wants to settle in and watch the show. It’s also harder to get 80,000 fans on the same page at the same time than it is to get 16,000 fans. So even when everyone’s saying the same thing, the left 40,000 people will be shouting it two seconds after the right 40,000 people, and the result is a wordless din.

There’s also a different audience who’s joining the “core” Internet fans there – families from the local area who don’t get very rowdy, or people from the area who don’t know much about wrestling and just come to see what all the fuss is about. They dilute the concentration of the raucous crowd, and to some degree shame the loudest fans into behaving themselves. Every time I’ve ever heard fans start chanting something profane at Wrestlemania someone sitting next to them has told them to watch their mouth.

The next night when the WWE tapes their weekly television show, RAW, everything is different. The curiosity seekers stay home. So do the families. They’ve spent all they’re going to spend. What’s left are 16,000 Internet fans (and 5 horrified “other people”) wedged into an enclosed basketball arena, with acoustics designed to echo. They see that as their chance to air their agenda in front of WWE management and a worldwide television audience: to show how united they are in support of some wrestlers, and how unanimously they detest others.

One of the most dramatic moments this year was when the crowd got fed up with a match between Sheamus and Randy Orton. Instead of cheering or booing either performer in the ring, they decided to show just how little they cared by chanting the referee’s name. “Mike Chioda! Mike Chioda!” Then they chanted for each of the television broadcasters, one at a time. Then they called for RVD, a wrestler who’s in TNA!, the WWE’s rival promotion. They even threw in a Mexican soccer chant used by indy wrestler El Generico. When a villain, The Big Show, prematurely ended the match by ambushing Sheamus and Randy Orton with a steel chair the crowd chanted “Thank you, Big Show! Thank you, Big Show!”

Later, the crowd decided to show their appreciation for Fandango, a young performer they wanted to elevate, by humming his orchestral theme song. Listening to the broadcast, you can hear the humming begin as a faint murmur. Then more and more people start doing it, until almost the entire 16,000 person audience is shouting full blast and dancing in their seats. When Fandango’s match ended after just a minute or so and the WWE tried to move on the crowd kept singing. They kept it up for almost the last half hour of the show, right through John Cena’s match. Every time it would die down someone would start it back up again. Even though the event was in New Jersey, a video came out a couple of days later of the Houston Texans NFL cheerleaders doing the Fandango song-and-dance in practice. PETA employees in animal costumes did it too. Even a weather man danced on the news. Now fans around the country are apt to follow suit. Someone mixed Fandango and the Peanuts gang. That’s spreadable media.

The crowd basically held the broadcast hostage. They did not let the WWE tell the story that management directed. They started telling a new story about how bored they were with the “same old shit” the WWE was trying to sell. I’m sad that we weren’t there for it. As rude and bossy as the Internet fans can be, I’m proud of them.

But here’s the truly sad part. Just a week later the WWE has already made Fandangoing the least cool thing there is. On RAW they brought out all of the marketing statistics and glossy PR videos about how many people are Fndangoing. Then they had Fandango try for 10 minutes to get the crowd to do the Fandango dance on cue. He looked more and more desperate as he screamed hoarsely over and over for people to get out of their seats. Instead of just letting Fandangoing be a fun thing the fans came up with they turned it into a corny marketing gimmick.

Even worse, rumor has it that the WWE is considering holding next year’s RAW after Wrestlemania in the Louisiana Superdome “to make it an even bigger event.” But as I’ve already explained, the acoustics of such a giant stadium, the difficulty of getting 80,000 to harmonize at once, and the presence of so many families is all apt to discourage next year’s crowd from acting so disobedient. If the rumor is true, then the WWE is either out of touch (possible), or machiavelian (very possible).

The WWE constantly pushes fans to social media on their shows, and pops up updates on the screen every time they trend on Twitter. They write in press releases that every live audience is a focus group, and that they have their finger on the pulse of their fanbase like no other producers in Hollywood. But it often doesn’t seem like they actually give a damn what fans are saying. They just care that the fans are marketing them free of charge on social media, and giving them impressive statistics that their PR people can distribute. If the fans don’t embarrass the WWE by making a mockery of their broadcasts I don’t think management is going to take them seriously. I’ll probably remain a fan for many years to come, and I’ll be at Wrestlemania next year. But I won’t be there to dance and sing when the corporate fat cats tell me to. I’ll go to experience natural emotions and shout my genuine opinions. That’s what pro wrestling is about.

Postscript: WWE referee Jimmy Korderas said in a podcast interview:

“I appreciate the fact that the fans who paid their hard-earned money come and enjoy themselves and they cheer and boo and chant for whomever they want. They only issue I had with the post-WrestleMania Monday night crowd was it got a little bit crazy and overboard where they did it to amuse themselves as opposed to being entertained with what was going on inside the ring. So, it was almost like ‘We don’t care what’s going on in the ring, it has nothing to do with what’s going on in the ring; we’re going to start chanting and almost kind of hijacking the show to some extent… To me, it didn’t feel like it fit with the actual presentation of the show… I just thought, like you said, it was more to entertain themselves than to be entertained by the festivities.”

And this week’s edition of Dave Meltzer’s Wrestling Observer reports:

“Multiple WWE employees were upset with the crowd’s unwelcoming reaction to Maria Menounos, particularly since they love affiliations with celebrities and with her subsequent letter acknowledging the negative response, it got out that a strong portion of their fanbase lack proper manners, refinement and decency.”

Both of these items seem to show that wrestling employees expect their audience to “be entertained”, “care about what’s happening in the ring”, and not be “unwelcoming.” But fans expect the show to be entertaining and welcoming, and for the WWE to care about what’s happening in the audience. I guess it could show a lack of ‘manners, refinement and decency’ if Rockne S. O’Bannon showed up at Paley Fest and the audience booed and chanted “Same old shit!” But it would seem even more ridiculous for Rockne to criticize his audience for not being entertained by his show. WWE Fans boo almost every time a celebrity comes on the show, and have for years. I can see how this puts Vince McMahon in an uncomfortable position with some of his business associates. But he’s got a problem, because they’re booing how corporate wrestling has become, and I think they’d like to sabotage those business relationships. That’s definitely unfriendly. I just think the producers and their audience have irreconcilable differences in what they want.

 

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“Same Old Shit!”: Fan Resistance at Wrestlemania 29 (Part One)

Two weeks ago, my son and I flew to Newark, New Jersey to attend Wrestlemania 29. My son first became interested in professional wrestling when he was nine, and I ended up accompanying him to a range of local and national events. Together, we saw some of the great performers of the 1980s – from Hulk Hogan to Andre the Giant, from Jake the Snake Roberts to Hacksaw Jim Duggan and Rowdy Roddy Piper; we also saw early matches by then-emerging performers, such as The Undertaker, Shawn Michaels, Bret “The Hitman” Hart, and Triple H; and as he grew older, we even made it to a live ECW event (a rival league that has since taken on a mythic reputation). I wrote an essay about the ways that professional wrestling constituted a site of masculine melodrama, “Never Trust a Snake,” and my son published his own account of his experiences as a young wrestling fan for Nick Sammond’s Steel Chair to the Head: The Pleasures and Pain of Professional Wrestling. My son has remained actively interested in wrestling through the years; my interests have shifted elsewhere, but when my son asked if I would travel with him to Wrestlemania, I jumped at the opportunity.

My son brought me up to speed for several weeks before we left, even preparing a PowerPoint to help me keep the various characters and their storylines straight. We bought into the whole package – the Hall of Fame induction ceremony at Madison Square Gardens, the fan Axxess event at the Izod Center, and floor seats for Wrestlemania 29 itself at Met Life Stadium. What follows is an exchange which the two of us wrote reflecting on what we saw and what we feel are some of the defining traits of the contemporary wrestling world. Here, we hope to share some insights the WWE’s often-feisty relationship with its hardcore fans.

Since many of my readers may know you best from the wrestling article we co-wrote ten years ago, would you like to update them on your life since then?

I graduated from The University of Arizona and immediately interviewed to become an assistant staff writer with the WWE. I got to submit a short script, which Stephanie McMahon and the writing team read out loud and discussed. I wrote a scene in which “The Rated R Superstar” Edge, who was known for his reckless lifestyle, found out he had a teenage daughter and had to reevaluate his life choices.

I didn’t get the job, so I moved to the one-stoplight town of Alamance, North Carolina and became an apprentice promoter for an independent wrestling federation. It was my crazy way of showing I had the gumption to go for my dreams. I got to hear a lot of wrestling’s trade secrets from the athletes themselves and I got to know the real people behind the gimmicks. Mostly I spent a lot of time lugging brutally heavy steel poles and wooden planks around in order to build the wrestling ring at each venue. But I had a really bad time overall, for reasons it wouldn’t be polite to go into here, and I ended up deciding that I didn’t want to work in wrestling.

I became a transmedia writer and content producer instead. I now work for The Alchemists, a Hollywood transmedia production company. Most recently I was the primary author of an elaborate second screen experience for the CW television series Cult. Despite going in a different direction professionally I’ve stayed a fan.

One of the great things about growing up is that you get to make your own dreams come true. Specifically, I’ve made attending Wrestlemania and Comic-Con my two annual traditions. I’ve now followed the WWE around to seven Manias (in Boston, Orlando, Houston, Phoenix, Atlanta, Miami and North Jersey.) I always spend weeks making signs, which almost never actually end up being very visible on TV. I’ve gone with friends, girlfriends and a professor. But I’ve never forgotten how much it meant to me to go to the shows at The Garden with you when I was a kid. I really wanted to go to one more show with you.

Why don’t you set the scene for us? You’ve written about the periodic shifts in the core vision of the WWE and especially its ongoing attempts to balance its hardcore fans with the family trade. What do you see as the current state of the WWE and how did this help to shape what was in the program in New Jersey?

Fans describe the current moment in wrestling as the PG Era. The McMahon family, who runs the WWE, has become consumed by the desire to become a respectable corporate brand. ‘Rasslin has always resided in the cultural ghetto, just a little more respectable than monster truck racing but not as respectable as NASCAR. The WWE achieved its highest ratings in the late 90s and early 2000s when they fully embraced their wild image. The major pro wrestling series were rated PG-14. Characters cursed like sailors. Women’s wrestlers dressed like cheerleaders, Catholic school girls or French maids. They swatted each other on the butt with paddles. Male and female wrestlers alike performed death-defying stunts. The soap opera storylines took a dark turn. Triple H infamously raped his opponent Kane’s dead girlfriend’s corpse in her coffin. Wrestling became mainstream among 20-somethings precisely because it irresponsible and excessive. It provided a carnal thrill you couldn’t find anywhere else on television.

The company reigned in their crude content because they wanted to have their cake and eat it too. They wanted to be ultra-cool, but they didn’t want to be seedy. Vince McMahon saw the WWE as a publicly-traded entertainment studio on the level of Marvel or LucasArts. He produced theatrical films starring their performers; he opened a restaurant in Times Square; he founded a pro football league to compete with the NFL; he even cut rap albums.

All of that went off the rails in 2007 when one of the stars, Chris Benoit, murdered his family and hung himself. The most common theory is that his insanity was brain damage he suffered headbutting opponents during his career. Other past and current stars, such as Eddie Guerrero, Mister Perfect, Miss Elizabeth, Sensational Sherri, Bam Bam Bigelow, The British Bulldog, Pitbull #2, Road Warrior Hawk, Demolition Crush, Crash Holly, Test and Umaga – all died of overdoses and drug-induced heart attacks over a seven year span. Big corporate sponsors dropped their support. Local athletic commissions refused to grant the WWE the licenses necessary to perform in certain markets unless they adopted tougher drug testing. Ratings dropped. I was one of the many long time viewers who stopped watching. It was getting downright difficult to give these people my money. I felt like I was supporting something evil.

 

 

The WWE has been obsessed with cleaning up its image ever since. All of their shows are now rated PG. The company does a substantial amount of charity work. This weekend’s Wrestlemania broadcast alone included tributes to Hurricane Sandy relief, the Be A Star anti-bullying campaign, the Special Olympics, Make-a-Wish kids and saluting America’s troops – all campaigns the WWE consistently promotes throughout the year. As a result, top sponsors have returned, and a host of respected figures ranging from Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton to Arnold Schwarzenegger, Hugh Jackman, Sean “Puffy” Combs and The Muppets have appeared on WWE television.

Fans who started watching because they loved wrestling’s rebellious excesses have become alienated. Many continue to watch because they love what wrestling was, or what they believe it could be again, but they hate what wrestling is today, and they understandably feel like they didn’t change. Wrestling did. They don’t want to be preached to. They find the anti-bullying PSAs hollow coming from a company that allows wrestlers to make homophobic comments. They want the best athletes and biggest personalities to be successful, not the performers who present the cleanest corporate image.

I basically agree with those fans, even if I feel like they can sometimes paint things as more black and white than they are. As I wrote in Steel Chair to the Head wrestling tried so hard to be shocking in those days that it just got gross. But the energy was much rawer then. I liked how wrestling let its hair down. I will still maintain that both from a creative standpoint and a business standpoint the blood, sex and sock puppets weren’t the problem. The rash of drug related deaths were caused by the relentless 320 day a year work schedule and the lack of company health care, which prevented people from recovering naturally from injuries without abusing pain killers. Management has also always had an expectation that wrestlers achieve unrealistic body shapes, which led the stars to abuse steroids. None of that has really changed. Going PG did help the WWE attract more sponsors and celebrity involvement, which was good for their bottom line. But it also made them a lot less cool, and their ratings are now half of what they used to be. Sanitized wrestling is a buzz kill.

Today’s viewers feel that they are the custodians of wrestling. They still remember what wrestling used to be about – what made them fall in love with it – and they intend to keep booing the good guys, chanting “boring” and sitting in stony silence at live events until they force the WWE to change. But the WWE is seemingly willing to lose those fans if it means they can stay respectable. The gulf that separates the viewers and the corporate executives was never more obvious than at Wrestlemania this weekend.

I’ll say! We observed some real tensions all weekend.

Take the Hall of Fame ceremony. Before the event even started, the WWE announced that late 90s star Mick Foley’s Hall of Fame speech would not air on their trimmed-down television broadcast. He would be cut for time. Instead viewers would see Vince McMahon honor Donald Trump, who owned the buildings that several past Wrestlemanias had taken place in. It was a recognition that most of the web fans saw as politically and commercially motivated. After some behind-the-scenes discussion, the WWE extended the broadcast to allow Foley’s lifetime achievement award to be broadcast.

Foley

When Foley went onto the stage, the auditorium went wild and Mick seemed genuinely touched by the fan response. His remarks were playful and funny, telling stories of his blood and glory days in the ring, He emphasized the match where he lost a sizable chunk of his ear, and he ended by staging a few moments of rough-housing with Chris Jericho, who he had always wanted to beat in the ring, heinous villain CM Punk broke character in order to referee the fight.

When The Donald entered, he was resoundingly booed and the relentless jeers continued throughout his remarks. The Donald got booed again when the Hall of Famers were reintroduced at Wrestlemania.

Bob

The fans also jeered, booed, and hissed when former Today show host Maria Menounos went into an overly-long and overly-flattering introduction of Bob Backlund, another featured part of the program that went terribly wrong. Backlund came out and seemed to be shouting at the fans. Then the fans shouted back. After a while, it seemed like Backlund was trying to perform as the heel character he adopted upon his return to the WWE late in his career (a senile man in a bathrobe who believed he was running for president), but by that point, no one was quite clear what was going on, as the speaker was raspy and red in the face, and telling people to shut up.

We were both struck when they showed a segment from the Hall of Fame ceremony during the Wrestlemania broadcast which had been carefully edited to suggest a much saner, more sentimental Backlund, and it looked like it was redubbed to strip out the audience response. Then, Backlund got on the stage and went bat shit crazy all over again, making it even less clear than before if he was trying to perform in character or simply outraged over the fan response. Maria Menounos also chastised the fans in a blog post about the event.

By contrast, the fans seemed to sit on their hands during the heavily billed matched between the Rock and Cena….

The Rock and John Cena epitomize corporatized wrestling. I have been watching since January of 1991 and I can’t remember ever seeing this kind of across-the-board nerd rage towards a Wrestlemania main event. The Rock left wrestling in the prime of his career years ago to focus on his movie career. He claimed that his return to wrestling three years ago was motivated by an enduring love for his fans, but it just happened to be timed to coincide with the marketing push for the movie Fast 5.

Since then he has left several more times, only returning on occasions when he has another movie to promote. Yet the WWE has now pushed aside all of the wrestlers who work for them day in and day out in order to let The Rock main event the biggest show of the year the past three years in a row. Fans see it as a soullessly calculated bit of corporate back scratching arranged by Hollywood agents and executives who aren’t overwhelmingly concerned with what the core audience would most like to see.

Cena and Rock
John Cena has won 13 world championships since the PG era began, which makes him the face of the moment. He’s constantly seen shaking hands with politicians or ringing the bell at the New York Stock Exchange. But those aren’t credentials fans care about. They’re liabilities, because they make him look like a square, a corporate puppet. Apologists say that Cena is the most popular wrestler on the planet with casual fans, families, women and children, who simply aren’t as rowdy as the adult men in the audience. But he gets booed out of almost every stadium he performs in. Fans verbally rip him to shreds with chants like “You’re a loser” and “Fuck, you, Cena!” They’re not playing around. They hate him.

Last year’s Wrestlemania main event was The Rock vs. John Cena, and the marketing tagline was “Once in a Lifetime.” But the writers knew the whole time that it was false advertising. They were setting the stage for a rematch, which fans dubbed “Twice in a Lifetime.” They’ve been chanting “Same old shit” every time it’s promoted.

I thought the match itself was thoroughly mediocre. I purposefully didn’t make any noise for it, because I think the WWE management even perceives booing as a passionate response. I didn’t even pay that close attention. I just didn’t care. But from what I observed, The Rock is out of shape. No sooner had they started than he got exhausted and needed to rest. That’s been the case with every time he’s wrestled since he came back. It’s hard to keep up with the younger wrestlers when you only get in the ring once or twice a year.

The outcome of this year’s Mania main event was utterly predictable to most fans, with Cena winning and The Rock raising his hand. I rolled my eyes. The WWE hopes that if The Rock tells the audience to respect Cena we’ll all do as he says. I do respect Cena, but not because The Rock shilled for him.

In many ways, getting a glimpse into WWE fan culture through your eyes was the most interesting aspect of the trip for me. As I see it, we are watching a collision between fans and corporations that is unfolding across multiple media. The WWE has fully and obsessively embraced social media, with constant prods throughout their broadcasts to follow along on Twitter, and even recommended hash tags. The fans have also long used a diverse range of blogs, podcasts, and other online forums to coalesce their own opinions, to share insider knowledge, to formulate their opinions – often in ways, as we are seeing here, which run contrary to the dominant narrative the WWE wants to construct.

At the same time, the WWE seeks to stage a spectacular broadcast, that reaches viewers all over the planet. As a scripted program (i.e. “sports entertainment”), they have enormous control over what happens in the ring, yet they have far less control over what the fans do at ringside. Some of the first generation of scholars writing about the WWE stressed the nature of this fan performance – the ways fans perform for each other and for the cameras in ways that help everyone to suspend disbelief and lend credibility to the staged spectacle. When wrestling fans resist, they do so in a highly public manner: they chant, they shout, they hold up signs, they often become so loud that they get heard on the broadcast even if the management doesn’t like what they have to say.

Yes, the announcers have some ability to re-narrate the fan pushback, to re-inscribe it into the narrative. As you say, above all, the WWE wants to generate “heat.” They want to provoke strong emotions, and so, they can always describe the fans as “rowdy” or “raucous” or “out of control” or “going crazy”, even when the response does not seem to support the preferred storyline. Wrestlemania and Raw are going out via a live feed so they can only do so much to control the fan reaction. We saw with the Hall of Fame ceremony, which was taped for later broadcast, that they were almost Orwellian in re-sculpting the experience, cutting out awkward moments, reducing the sound of the crowd so you can’t quite understand what they are shouting, editing it so that it looks like one happy family. Bob Backlund comes across as sentimental in the edit for television, but he came across as crazed and angry for those of us at the live event.

And, of course, the fan’s engagement with the events can shift pretty dramatically from match to match. My nostalgia draws me back to the generation of wrestlers who were performing when you were little, the ones I wrote about in my original “Never Trust a Snake” essay. So, I was perhaps most engaged by the Undertaker/C.M. Punk match. We saw the Undertaker fight some of his early matches and now, he has a 21-0 lifetime record at Wrestlemania. He is an aging lion, who only rarely fights, and who has been rumored for several years to be on the verge of retirement. Yet, the guy knows how to sell the melodramatic dimensions of the storyline. Leading into this match, they did everything they could to make Punk a despicable figure. Paul Bearer, the Undertaker’s long-time friend and supporter, had passed away, in real life. The Undertaker was paying tribute to him on Raw when Punk snuck into the ring and stole the urn which, for storyline purposes, held Bearer’s ashes. We saw broadcasts where he was casually tossing the urn around and then, on the eve of Wrestlemania, he dumped the ashes in the Undertaker’s face and bathed in them himself.

What they delivered at Wrestlemania was an old fashioned “slobberknocker,” full of melodramatic twists in fortune, two counts and kick outs.

My sense is that the fans were eating it up. Sure, there were plenty of people rooting for Punk, who has a strong cult following, but they were also being earnest when they chanted “this is awesome” at several points during the match. And it was fun to me to see that the WWE still knows how to play upon those classic elements in their performances.

It was awesome. Most of the blogs I follow gave the match 4 ½ to 5 stars, and I agree. It was the highlight of the night. In that instance, yes, at least ½ the fans were rooting for the bad guy, CM Punk, but the point wasn’t to disrupt the broadcast. It was to show their love for a great performer. Chanting Punk’s name is very different from chanting “same old shit” towards John Cena and The Rock.

In baseball they would call Punk a five-tool player. He’s a charismatic speaker. He can emote very nuanced reactions for the TV close-ups. He can gesture broadly to get a response from the live audience in the balcony. He’s graceful in the ring, and he knows a broad variety of tactics to make each match feel unique. He can play an identifiable good guy or a despicable bad guy more or less equally well. He’s just got the total package.

Two other wrestlers, Dolph Ziggler and Daniel Bryan, lose more often than they win, but the decibel level for their brief appearances can often exceed those for the better promoted stars. Fans create elaborate signs on poster board and fabric to waive in tribute to them. I think in all fairness they’re probably not quite as charismatic as guys like The Rock or Cena, but they’re better natural athletes and great performers just the same. The fact that they so often draw the short straw when it comes to wins and losses just makes fans respect them more for paying their dues.

(MORE TO COME)

Thinking Critically About Brand Cultures: An Interview with Sarah Banet-Weiser (Part Three)


Your chapter on YouTube has been the focus of some very productive debates between the two of us, often having to do with the relationship between collective engagement and “self-branding.” In the published chapter, you acknowledge that various forms of collective action are possible through social media (citing, for example, the Arab Spring movement), but for you, “narcissism is part of the very structure of online technologies,” (p.88). I could argue the opposite is also true — that networked communication is by its very definition networked, which involves some kind of set of social relations between individual participants. So, how do we as theorists reconcile the individualistic and collectivistic dimensions of digital culture?



It’s a very good question, and at the risk of being repetitive, I think our responsibility as theorists is to engage how these dimensions of digital culture—the individualistic and the collectivist—operate simultaneously and often in contradiction with each other. In terms of narcissism, I am responding to Jean Twenge, who has argued in her book on youth and media that narcissism is a problem for the younger generation. My critique of this argument is that rather than understand youth and media as discrete, separate realms, we need to think about the deep interrelations between and within youth culture and media spaces. That is, I said here that online technologies enable a kind of narcissism, and this (at least to me) is surely true, in the context of self-branding, personal profiles, the genre of “selfies” for young people, the isolation that can happen in digital spaces. The fact that this context exists doesn’t mean that networked communication is not enabled by digital culture, but it does mean that we have to think about what the categories of “individual” and “networked” are in relation to each other, rather than as each other’s opposite. To say that digital spaces are often individualistic, and that we should be more critical of this as these spaces are often touted as democratic, doesn’t mean that no other politics exist online.

I also think that we need to think of this digital dichotomy as something that also finds purchase in off-line spaces. So, there is some similarity between the notion that, say young women in digital spaces often self-present according to familiar gendered scripts, and the fact that these same scripts are reinforced in celebrity culture, everyday practices, policy and legislation. And, networked communication online might energize and organize a kind of democratic participation that then takes place off-line. What I hope to do in my work is not give the impression that I don’t think democratic participation is possible, but rather that in order for us to understand what something like democracy looks like in the current moment means that we need to engage cultural spaces in their relation to each other, rather than as discrete realms.

You end the book with a really provocative section which at once critiques the possibilities of a politics grounded in critical utopianism (you talk about “utopic normativity”) and yet also holds open what you describe as “the generative potential of ambivalence.” What would you see as some real world examples where groups or individuals have built in meaningful ways on the “generative potential of ambivalence” and how might we distinguish them from the kind of utopian thinking which simply reinscribes existing norms and values?


Well, I think perhaps the most obvious recent example is the various Occupy movements around the globe. Surely, brand culture is part of the context for Occupy—even as it is also part of the movement’s critique. So while Occupy might be called a “branded” movement—through design, logos, the use of social media, the Guy Fawkes mask you mentioned, etc—it is also about challenging existing norms and values.

Another example of how ambivalence is generative can be found in the branding of Wikileaks. A marketing company was hired to brand Wikileaks, as a way to raise funds for Assange’s legal fees. Did branding Wikileaks mean that the politics behind it are rendered obsolete, or does it make Assange a “sell-out”? The WikiLeaks website challenges the history of “official” information and the public’s right to access this information; the leaked documents have already disrupted routines of national security around the globe. Regardless of its ultimate impact, WikiLeaks is subversive. Because WikiLeaks is an affective sentiment in the sense that it inspires affect and emotion from individuals, the branding of it invokes ambivalence. The traversing of boundaries involved in branding WikiLeaks is not about whether Assange is “selling out,” but is an articulation of a politics of ambivalence.

The branding of feminism (as opposed to the branding of post-feminism) might be yet another example. For instance, last year’s “Binders of Women” could be understood as embodying part of brand culture in the way it was circulated, distributed, and engaged by consumers. Yet it also brought critical attention to the patriarchal discourse of politics, and worked to remind women of the importance of voting, etc.

Importantly, to traverse boundaries of different economies, market and non-market, profit-oriented or reciprocal, means not to jump from one “side” of a neoliberal divide to the other, one a space of authenticity, the other one of complicity as the discourse of “selling out” implies. And this is the ambivalence that I think is generative, that challenges a utopic normativity.

Sarah Banet-Weiser is a Professor in the School of Communication at USC Annenberg and the department of American Studies and Ethnicity. She had two books published in 2012, most recently Authentic™: The Politics of Ambivalence in a Brand Culture (New York University Press), which examines brand culture, youth, and political possibility through an investigation of self-branding, creativity, politics, and religion. Also published in 2012 was Commodity Activism: Cultural Resistance in Neoliberal Times (New York University Press), co-edited with Roopali Muhkerjee. Her first book, The Most Beautiful Girl in the World: Beauty Pageants and National Identity (University of California Press, 1999), explores a popular cultural ritual, the beauty pageant, as a space in which national identities, desires, and anxieties about race and gender are played out. She has also authored a book on consumer citizenship and the children’s cable network: Kids Rule! Nickelodeon and Consumer Citizenship (Duke University Press, 2007), in addition to her co-edited book, Cable Visions: Television Beyond Broadcasting, co-edited with Cynthia Chris and Anthony Freitas (New York University Press, 2007). She co-edits, with Kent Ono, a book series with New York University Press, “Critical Cultural Communication,” and is the editor of American Quarterly.

Thinking Critically About Brand Cultures: An Interview with Sarah Banet-Weiser (Part Two)

Your central premise is that the logics of branding are now complexly interwoven with all aspects of our everyday lives, that we adopt its principles in shaping our social relationships with each other and defining our identities in the world, and that notions of “authenticity” are less and less meaningful for describing our culture at a time when politics, religion, self-esteem, personal expression, are all bound up with the logics of branding. So, how are you defining branding?




In the book, I’m actually more concerned with what I call “brand culture” than practices of branding (i.e. the design and implementation of specific brand campaigns). For me, brand culture refers to the relationships between consumers and the commercial world, and the way in which these types of relationships have increasingly become cultural contexts for everyday living, individual identity, and affective relationships. Of course, there are different brand cultures, that at times overlap and compete with each other, so in the book I talk about the brand culture of street art in urban spaces, religious brand cultures, the culture of green branding with its focus on the environment, and so on. The practice of branding is typically understood as a complex economic tool, a method of attaching social or cultural meaning to a commodity as a means to make the commodity more personally resonant with an individual consumer. But I’m arguing that, in the contemporary era, brands are about culture as much as they are about economics.

So I try to show this transition in the book, and I argue that we need to think about differences between commodification and branding in order to understand some of the cultural dynamics occurring right now. That is, because a brand’s value extends beyond a tangible product, the process of branding—if successful—is different from commodification: it is a cultural phenomenon more than an economic strategy. Commodification implies the literal transformation of things into commodities; branding is a much more deeply interrelated and diffused set of dynamics. To commodify something means to turn it into, or treat it as, a commodity; it means to make commercial something that wasn’t previously thought of as a product, such as music or racial identity. Commodification is a marketing strategy, a monetization of different spheres of life, a transformation of social and cultural life into something that can be bought and sold. In contrast, the process of branding impacts the way we understand who we are, how we organize ourselves in the world, what stories we tell ourselves about ourselves.

So, I’m trying to make an intervention in the conversations about commodification, branding and identity. Again, I’m not making the argument that we just apply a business model onto the ways we construct our personal identities—it is not the case that business strategies merely get plucked from the realm of economics and mapped onto the realm of culture.

But I’m also not using “economy” or “market” as mere metaphors. In the book, I think about a more nuanced adoption of the logics and moralities of both economics and culture as a way to understand how we are constructing identities within brand culture, and to think about what is at stake in this kind of construction. What’s at stake for individuals and for culture in adopting brand logics and moralities?

In both Authentic and your new anthology, you talk about “commodity activism.” Explain this concept. To what degree does commodity activism still represent a meaningful form of activism? How has our notion of commodity needed to change to incorporate activism into the branding process?
 I’ve struggled a bit to think about the similarities and differences between what you are calling “commodity activism”, what I am calling in my current work “fan activism,” and what our mutual friend Stephen Duncombe would discuss as “ethical spectacle.” For me, there are some core differences between “purchasing Starbucks coffee to support Fair Trade,” tapping into the collective identity of Harry Potter fans in order to push Warner Brothers to move their chocolate contracts to Fair Trade Countries, and using the Guy Fawkes mask for Occupy Wall Street, yet from a certain frame of reference, all might be described as using “branding” to promote their political agendas. So, can we make meaningful distinctions in terms of how activists deploy brands in their efforts to promote change?



Roopali Mukherjee and I, in our co-edited volume, Commodity Activism: Cultural Resistance in Neoliberal Times, define commodity activism as the process by which social action is increasingly understood through the ways it is mapped onto merchandising practices, market incentives, and corporate profits. We look at different forms of commodity activism—the Dove RealBeauty campaign, the branding of green activists, the work of celebrities for progressive causes such as development and the diamond trade, and so on— and think through what social action and cultural resistance mean in a context that is increasingly defined by ideas about self-branding, entrepreneurial individualism, and economic responsibility.

I think that commodity activism can be an important form of social activism, if the goals of such activism are not primarily organized around the accumulation of profit or building a corporate brand (so, for example, consumers may act politically by buying, say, green products, but we need to also attend to the ways in which consumer behavior builds brands by buying products, etc.). In lots of forms of commodity activism, the goal is the identity of the consumer or brand of the corporation, not the activism itself or what it might yield. So much commodity activism, rather than challenge existing structures in the social, economic and cultural realms, those structures that create and sustain inequalities, is dedicated to furthering the recognition of the corporation, its self-brand. This then often becomes the end goal of the activism, and it is this that I think we should challenge as “activism.”

So, to answer your question: yes, we can make meaningful distinctions in terms of how activists deploy brands. We can also make meaningful distinctions in terms of different kinds of activism. So, for example, activism about girls’ self-esteem is hot right now—a whole industry has been built around it. That doesn’t mean that it isn’t an important context for activism, but it does mean that we need to carefully attend to what sort of politics aren’t so easily branded, and thus made visible.

Your first extended example is Dove’s “Real Women” campaign, which Unilever very much wanted us to experience as a break with the ways women had been marketed “beauty products” in the past. To what degree did this embody the new branding logic you are describing? Yet, you are also arguing that it needs to be understood as part of a larger history of Dove’s alternative marketing to women. What might we learn by placing this ad into this expanded historical context?




Well, I think that all cultural forms of activism need to be understood historically, as dynamics of power that shift and become something new, but also because we need to attend to the ways in which historical forms of power continue to be crucial in how we structure our lives and our politics. This is important because history matters—in my work I try, in every chapter, to historicize the specific brand culture I’m examining, so that we can see how there are cultural dynamics that seem quite new and different share similarities with historical processes and patterns. At the same time, there is something shifted at this moment, for some of the reasons I’ve detailed here: the rise of commodity activism, the difference between commodification and branding, the way consumers interact on multiple media platforms, etc. So with the Dove case, the RealBeauty campaign, it is the case that the company encouraged a sort of “co-production” with consumers, and did call attention to the exclusionary (and often racist and classist) norms of beauty culture.

It also has a history of helping to create that very same beauty culture. One doesn’t cancel the other out, nor is this a simple case of hypocrisy. Rather, this kind of contradiction defines brand culture, and also defines how consumer culture can be the site for a kind of activism. The power of capitalism, as we know, has been in its capacity to not just protect existing markets but to be expansive, to create new markets. This happens, though, in the context of a relationship to activism and resistance, and it is this hard-to-define terrain, where we think about what counts as activism, that comprises brand culture.

Sarah Banet-Weiser is a Professor in the School of Communication at USC Annenberg and the department of American Studies and Ethnicity. She had two books published in 2012, most recently Authentic™: The Politics of Ambivalence in a Brand Culture (New York University Press), which examines brand culture, youth, and political possibility through an investigation of self-branding, creativity, politics, and religion. Also published in 2012 was Commodity Activism: Cultural Resistance in Neoliberal Times (New York University Press), co-edited with Roopali Muhkerjee. Her first book, The Most Beautiful Girl in the World: Beauty Pageants and National Identity (University of California Press, 1999), explores a popular cultural ritual, the beauty pageant, as a space in which national identities, desires, and anxieties about race and gender are played out. She has also authored a book on consumer citizenship and the children’s cable network: Kids Rule! Nickelodeon and Consumer Citizenship (Duke University Press, 2007), in addition to her co-edited book, Cable Visions: Television Beyond Broadcasting, co-edited with Cynthia Chris and Anthony Freitas (New York University Press, 2007). She co-edits, with Kent Ono, a book series with New York University Press, “Critical Cultural Communication,” and is the editor of American Quarterly.

Thinking Critically About Brand Cultures: An Interview with Sarah Banet-Weiser (Part One)

Transmedia Hollywood 4: Spreading Change is coming up on Friday of this week, and in anticipation of that event, which is scheduled to have some substantive discussion about the intersection between brand cultures and political activism, I wanted to share this interview with my USC Annenberg School colleague Sarah Banet-Weiser. Banet-Weiser will be speaking at the event, drawing on her two recent books, the single-authored Authentic(TM): The Politics of Ambivalence in a Brand Culture and her anthology, co-edited with Roopali Mukherjee, Commodity Activism: Cultural Resistance in Neo-Liberal Times. I anticipate Banet-Weiser bringing a very needed critical perspective to our discussions, one which is skeptical of the claims of some of our corporate participants, but one which is also open-minded and curious about their visions of political change.

I have come to develop enormous respect for Banet-Weiser during my time at USC. She is beloved here as a teacher and mentor who is incredibly dedicated to her students. We often find ourselves closely aligned on departmental policy concerns and she has in some ways been a mentor for me as I have adjusted to a new institutional setting. Our work seems to have paralleled each other — starting with her early work on children’s culture and media, which emerged at about the same time I was publishing The Children’s Culture Reader. More recently, her Authentic (TM) book was released just a few months before Spreadable Media. Both represent attempts to come to grips with the contradictions and challenges of our current moment of media change. And I have found her collection on Commodity Activism very important as we are thinking through my current research on youth, new media, and participatory politics.

I think it is safe to say that most of the world, reading our work in isolation from our institutional context, would see us as representing very different theoretical and ideological perspectives on some of these same issues. It is difficult in the current climate to describe these differences in language that is not already over-determined by culture wars and conflicts, rifts in our field that go back at least to the 1980s, if not earlier. Banet-Weiser’s work is grounded in a very strong critique of neoliberalism and a strong emphasis on structural constraints on our capacities for individual and collective action; my work has been strongly grounded in an advocacy for participatory culture as a central tool for bringing about greater diversity and democracy and has tended to place a strong importance on the concept of collective agency within a networked culture. Often, our respective intellectual allies do not play nicely with each other, and we’ve both been concerned by the sharp language through which these issues have often been contested in recent years.

Yet, I have enormous respect and affection for Banet-Weiser and have always learned a tremendous deal from her work, and as friends and colleagues, we have become important thinking partners for each other. We read and responded extensively to each other’s book manuscripts. Such exchanges were especially valuable at moments where we were in the sharpest disagreement, where our world views clashed in ways that prove generative for both of us. Some of these core disagreements surface in the following interview. My hope is that these disagreements prove generative for my readers also.

As I have written often of late, there’s an urgent need for these perspectives to be speaking with each other. I see more and more scholars talking about the need for a frank critique of what’s happened with digital culture and especially with Web 2.0. Many are calling for us to move beyond utopian or dystopian perspectives and deal realistically with what has and has not been achieved in terms of a vision for meaningful social and political change. One side has perhaps articulated most fully the promises and potentials of that change,the other has developed the strongest critique of the structural constraints on reforming or transforming the current system and the mechanisms by which participation has been manipulated and exploited by corporate interests towards its own ends. One side has pushed an agenda of media reform focused around corporate concentration, while the other has stressed the importance of insuring the broadest possible access to the skills and tools required for meaningful participation. These two sides too often speak past each other, distrust each other. We lose sight of our shared goals. I am determined to seek common ground between these perspectives, and I hope that this exchange will represent one step forward in that process.

Banet-Weiser writes with enormous clarity in her new book about a theoretical and political stance grounded in “ambivalence,” a term I also think might describe what I am seeking right now in my own work. Too often, we’ve ended up with a divide between those of us who see the world as a glass half full and those who see the world as a glass half empty, without noticing that both of us agree that it’s only half a glass. Our points of disagreement may make us stronger if they force us to examine our core assumptions and sharpen our analysis, but they should not come at the expense of our recognition of our shared commitments and our collective stakes in insuring a more just society.

You write, “Terranova’s idea of compromise, between creativity and capitalism, between affect and profit, requires that we understand what exactly is being compromised, and what consumers gain as well as lose through such transactions.” On this point, we totally agree though there’s much more work to be done before we can fully address this question. My own sense is that critical theory has been better, by far, at describing what consumers “lose” and less effective at describing what consumers “gain.” So, from your point of view, what do consumers “gain” under the neo-liberal terms you are describing in your book? And what do they “lose”?




Well, as you say, it is somewhat easier to describe what consumers “lose” within brand culture, so I’ll address that first. I describe in the book how, in the current moment, brands, and branding strategies, have expanded beyond selling actual products or companies, and are an integral part of culture. We are witnessing the expansion of brand language and logic to our personal selves, where individuals often feel obliged to not only construct, but to understand themselves as brands. This is a problem, I think, because branding is, at the end of the day, about selling and marketing things. So, for instance, when we create a self-brand, we embark on a process that packages, designs, and markets us—human beings—just like other products and commodities. To think of ourselves as things or commodities devalues the self.

Another thing I think consumers “lose” when we are not critical of, or do not challenge the normalization of self-branding, and brand culture more generally, relates to the economies of visibility that support and validate branding. Branding, and self-branding in particular, is about making the self visible (through a variety of media platforms), and I think we need to be critical of not only cultural imperatives to be visible, but also the structural inequalities that organize visibility in the first place: who can be visible? Who is seen as “worthy” of visibility? How does visibility work in different ways depending on gender, race, class? Within this context, brand culture, as both an economic and cultural formation and dynamic of power authorizes some things as “brandable,” while others are unbrandable, or are in excess of the brand, or remain in search of “brandability” if they want to be visible.

Now, what do consumers potentially “gain” within the neoliberal context? While I’m critical of many brand cultures in the book, the cultures and practices I examine are only a small element of broader brand culture. There are historical ways in which, for example, making the self visible through consumer and brand culture has been linked to a politics of freedom and emanicipation, and I think we need to pay attention to those histories. This is a contradictory formation: brand culture provides the context for struggles over visibility and recognition. Yet it simultaneously provides the context for the commodification of people as visual objects. The contradictory spaces of brand culture provide opportunities for acting on these contradictions, and thus potentially locating political possibility and critique within brand culture.

But brand culture, or any kind of culture for that matter, is not an either/or context, where it is either liberatory or oppressive, because the production of meaning is always collective and contingent. Certainly the kinds of access and disruptions of power we witness in, say, social media contexts, can lead to a more democratic idea of resistance and identity, and dynamics of power can be re-contextualized in ways that offer space for shifting norms.

What I trace in the book, and this is particularly true when we are talking about gender norms and practices, is that these media platforms may be disrupting conventions of power in some ways while also relying on familiar scripts and narratives that have proven successful in capitalism.


These questions are intended to get to the heart of what your book is describing as “ambivalence.” It is a word which does a great deal of work in your argument. In what sense do you think our relations to contemporary consumer culture are “ambivalent”? What is the role of the critic in dealing with this kind of ambivalence?



I think that a great deal of scholarship approaches consumer and popular culture within the framework of a familiar binary: it is either authentic or commercial, it is about real politics or corporate appropriation. For me, brand culture is neither a historical inevitability, nor is it uncontested. Rather, brand cultures emerge from the deeply interrelated discourses and practices of capitalism, history, culture, technology, and individual identity formation. Because brands form culture, they are—like culture itself—often unstable and precarious. The argument I’m making in the book is that consumer capitalism is a nuanced, multi-layered context for identity formation—as such, it is an explicitly cultural space. And, because I’m writing about culture, I think we need to carefully attend to the ways in which the production and consumption of culture within the logic of branding involves not only those practices that are easily branded, but also those who are left out of brand culture because they are not easily branded. So, we need to think about why certain politics or lifestyles are incorporated into brand culture, as well as why others not immediately amenable to branding are left out.

This is where ambivalence comes in, in those spaces of culture that are not easily determined by either commercial culture or individual resistance. But, connecting ambivalence to actual praxis is a difficult thing, and has no guarantees. For one thing, most elements of culture are not seen as ambivalent. Ambivalence, its lack of certainty, its inconsistency, the way it both harbors and is defined by doubt, is generally understood as a problem, something to avoid. Yet, I’m arguing that it is important to take seriously the cultural value of emotion and affect and the potential of ambivalence, its generative power, for it is within these spaces that hope and anxiety, pleasure and desire, fear and insecurity are nurtured and maintained. Brand marketers realize the potential of ambivalence, and capitalize on it. But their strategies do not in turn mean that affect, or ambivalence, are simply, or only, spaces of corporate manipulation. Rather, affect and ambivalence can be utilized in different ways.

The ambivalence of brand cultures, then, is about incongruity—all brand cultures do not mean the same thing, either culturally or individually. If consumer capitalism demands that we live our lives within brand spaces and subjectivities, we need to think carefully about what this kind of life looks like, and conversely, what potential spaces and actions threaten to disrupt the expected flow of consumption.

To theorize ambivalence as a structuring element of brand cultures means that not all cultural practices are spaces of possibility, but rather that some carry more potential than others, that some cultural practices are easier to brand than others. Those practices that can be integrated within brand relationships, such as girls’ self-esteem, or environmental politics, or street art, are not empty of political possibility, but that possibility itself takes shape within a branded space and under branding rubrics. When a brand, a genre, or a product circulates in culture, its meaning is ambivalent. In other words, the fact that a brand circulates in culture is not a guarantee of its meaning; rather, the circulating brand is constantly under the threat of breakdown and destabilization. Within brand culture, this threat forms a crucial contradiction: brands are designed for stability, and their logic is based on regularity and singularity. Yet they are ultimately precarious, and are subject to cultural misunderstanding. For me, to theorize brand cultures as subject to misunderstanding and misrecognition is to deliberately hold on to the generative potential of brand cultures.

Sarah Banet-Weiser is a Professor in the School of Communication at USC Annenberg and the department of American Studies and Ethnicity. She had two books published in 2012, most recently Authentic™: The Politics of Ambivalence in a Brand Culture (New York University Press), which examines brand culture, youth, and political possibility through an investigation of self-branding, creativity, politics, and religion. Also published in 2012 was Commodity Activism: Cultural Resistance in Neoliberal Times (New York University Press), co-edited with Roopali Muhkerjee. Her first book, The Most Beautiful Girl in the World: Beauty Pageants and National Identity (University of California Press, 1999), explores a popular cultural ritual, the beauty pageant, as a space in which national identities, desires, and anxieties about race and gender are played out. She has also authored a book on consumer citizenship and the children’s cable network: Kids Rule! Nickelodeon and Consumer Citizenship (Duke University Press, 2007), in addition to her co-edited book, Cable Visions: Television Beyond Broadcasting, co-edited with Cynthia Chris and Anthony Freitas (New York University Press, 2007).
She co-edits, with Kent Ono, a book series with New York University Press, “Critical Cultural Communication,” and is the editor of American Quarterly.

As the World Stops Turning: A Conversation with Lynn Liccardo about Soap Operas (Part Three)

Much of your writing has focused on parallels between daytime serialized drama and the rise of “quality” shows, primetime dramas which marry serialized storytelling with higher budgets, deeper production values, and much shorter, season-based dramas which pack intense meaning into typically between 10 and 20 episodes in a season, as opposed to 260 episodes per year. What do you feel is the nature of the connection between today’s critically acclaimed dramas on FX, AMC, HBO, Showtime, and elsewhere and the daytime serial drama?

 

The success of early primetime serials like Dallas (1978) and Dynasty (1981) redefined the public perception of soap opera. Larger-than-life, over-the-top characters like J.R. Ewing and Alexis Carrington, who more resembled stock characters from the commedia dell’arte, than ATWT’s Hughes family, were enormously entertaining to watch, but not because viewers found “meaning and resonance through a deeper connection.”  And while Larry Hagman’s (J.R) called Dallas as a cartoon rather than a soap opera, to the media and public these guilty pleasures were soaps simply by virtue of their seriality. The popularity of these primetime soaps coincided with Gloria Monty’s transformation of General Hospital,, and had at least as profound an impact on daytime soaps. The spirit of Dallas and Dynasty continues in current primetime soaps Revenge and Scandal, and for the teenage demo, Gossip Girl and Pretty Little Liars.

The Best of J.R. Ewing from Dallas

The true heirs of ATWT comprise a long list of often critically-acclaimed, always ratings challenged, and ultimately short-lived serial dramas.  While thirtysomething may not have looked anything like ATWT, the the day-to-day lives of two baby boomer families, the Stedmans and Westons, mirrored those of the Hughes and Lowells 30 years earlier. Thirtysomething ran from 1987-91 and never rose above 40th in the ratings. Its very ordinariness (tensions between career and family, visiting parents, finding a babysitter) made it, and similar shows that followed (My So-Called Life, Joan of Arcadia, Jack and Bobby, Friday Night Lights, Men of a Certain Age, to name but a few), a challenge to promote effectively.

How networks schedule these quiet, slow-paced shows creates another obstacle. Broadcast network programmers, under pressure to win time slots, often shuffle their lineup, making it difficult for viewers to find these shows, which, unlike episodic television, need to be watched in order. Sometimes networks cancel them after a handful of episodes, creating a self-fulling prophecy when fans hear about a promising new serial drama, but fearing yet another heartbreak (not being hyperbolic here:), decide not to watch.

Since cable networks rarely pull a serial drama before the first order of episodes has aired, and are able to place the show in a fixed time slot followed by multiple repeats (sometimes even daylong marathons), viewers have ample opportunity to connect with these quiet, slow-paced shows. But there are still issues beyond the obvious disadvantages shorter seasons create for serial dramas: less time to fully develop characters and their relationships means less time to fully engage viewers. When networks pick up serials dramas, the creators face uncertainty about the number of episodes that can undermine the pace of the storytelling. After a 13-episode first season, Parenthood was picked up for 22 episodes, then renewed for a 18-episode third season and 15 for the fourth. Since the season often ends before the network has announced that the show has been renewed (or not), the season finale could well be the series finale.

Sometimes, scheduling uncertainty can cause a show’s demise. When the first season of TNT’s Men of a Certain Age ended in February 2010, the show was averaging 2.6 million viewers per episode, enough for the network to order an additional 12 episodes. After the episodes were completed, TNT decided to air them in two batches.  The first set of six episodes ended in January 2011, and the show was holding its own, averaging 2.4 million viewers. But TNT held the second set until June, when average viewership dropped to 1.5 million and the show was cancelled, a fate that might well have been avoided had all 12 episodes aired as the writers intended when they laid out the second season.

The real challenge is how to describe these quiet, slow-paced shows, which, by their very nature, defy brevity, and struggle even on premium cable, where In Treatment lasted three seasons on HBO and Enlightened is currently fighting to be heard over the noisier Girls and Showtime’s Homeland. When Ray Romano pitched Men of a Certain Age to FX, he was told it “wasn’t loud enough.” The show wound up on TNT, where it never really fit in with the network’ s other original programming, procedurals like The Closer, and the light-hearted Franklin and Bash. When Men… was cancelled, critic Alan Sepinwall admitted , “I don’t always do the best job of articulating the greatness of this series, but it’s there in those moments I described above, and so many more. It is a series about small details, and those details add up into big things: big laughs and big emotion; big pain and big joy.”

Edie Falco (Carmela Soprano) has said that she always saw The Sopranos as a family drama. She’s right; but take away the mob and what are the odds that The Sopranos would have been picked up, much less become a cultural phenomenon? Peter Horton (thirtysomethings’s Gary) perfectly articulated the situation, describing how networks, cable and otherwise, are driven to create shows where something stands out: “‘I’m a mother who sells pot,’ (Weeds); ‘I’m father, but I’m a meth dealer,’ (Breaking Bad); ‘I’m a gangster, but I have therapy,’ (The Sopranos). There’s always a but, whereas thirtysomething is about people,” which is exactly how Irna Phillips described As the World Turns.

“Quiet” shows with no “buts” are the 21st-century manifestation of  the “your mother’s soap opera” dilemma that ultimately doomed ATWT. The challenge facing today’s vertical storytellers and programmers is to develop a brand evoking the appeal of “quiet” and the missing “but,” that will stand out in an ever more crowded media landscape without compromising the integrity of the vertical storytelling axis. Developing that brand demands a more precise description and definition of vertical storytelling. That means first breaking down the characteristics of these shows at the elemental, even molecular level, a task hampered by the ambiguity of language that so flummoxed Alan Sepinwall. Virginia Heffernan’s insightfull 2008 observation that Friday Night Lights “ferociously guards its borders, refines its aesthetic, defines a particular reality and insists on authenticity,” which limits “platforms for supplemental advertising” also applies to these shows, and adds to the challenge, and urgency, of developing a brand for them.

 

What are the most interesting experiments with soap opera storytelling that you feel are capturing the unique nature and potential of the “U.S. soap opera format” of storytelling?

 

And therein lies the fundamental (and vexing) question: what exactly is the unique nature of the “U. S. soap opera format?”  There’s a vast difference between the public perception of soap opera as a melodramatic guilty pleasure populated with campy, over-the-top, plot-driven characters motivated by agendas rather than emotions, and mine. I would argue that soaps’ unique nature lies in a narrative structure that emphasizes storytelling’s vertical axis, revealing characters’ interiority, their emotional and psychological back stories, and providing time for viewers to fully absorb that information. All of which creates the opportunity for viewers find meaning and resonance through a deeper connection to characters.

A conversation to be continued. But first, the economic realities and the toll they’ve taken on soap opera’s unique nature.

From the time soaps moved from radio to television, the genre expanded: first adding the visual element, then growing from 15 minutes to a half hour, and in the late 1970s, to an hour . At the time, soaps were still a profit center for networks, and their budgets, while paltry compared to primetime shows, were sufficient to hire large casts with which writers wove rich, densely interconnected stories. After O.J., ratings took a hit from which they never recovered. Networks reduced the licensing fees they paid to the production companies, who cut the shows’ budgets. There are a number of ways for producers to reduce the cost of on-screen talent (shifting highly-paid veterans to recurring status and reducing the guarantees for contract players), so smaller budgets didn’t necessarily translate into fewer characters. What did happen was that there with fewer actors populating each episode, characters interacted less frequently, which limited opportunities for viewers to experience the full pleasure of the vertical axis. So, what had been a rich storytelling tapestry frayed and eventually shredded into the fragmented storytelling discussed above.

In July 2011, Prospect Park announced that they had acquired the online rights to two cancelled ABC soaps, All My Children and One Life to Live, and planned to launch the shows in early 2012. Grateful fans cheered and the mainstream media took note. But, PP’s announcement was premature: they had not yet negotiated contracts with the unions, and their business plan, which retained the shows’ hour format, failed to attract sufficient financing. When PP said they were suspending their efforts a few months later, most observers believed the deal was dead.

Fast-forward to last December: PP announced that they had negotiated collective bargain agreements with the guilds and secured sufficient financing to begin production in February. PP had lost a credibility with many fans when they suspended their initial effort, and not surprisingly, the reboot’s reboot was met with skepticism (and barely a mention in the mainstream media). Initially, PP took a lot of heat on the boards, but as their plans solidified, veteran actors signed on and distribution deals were struck with Hulu and iTunes, fans began to believe (the mainstream media silence continues). Production began on February 25th.

What PP’s done over the the past 18 months is what the networks and Procter & Gamble Productions ought to have been doing before soaps’ economic model, so successful for so long, was no longer viable. It took PP to recognize that for soaps to survive into the 21st-century, the Web would have to be more than just an additional platform for showing and promoting shows, then come back from an initial failure to make it happen. Perhaps the most important aspect of this resurrection is that the online reboot streamlines the format: 30, rather than 60 minutes; four episodes a week, rather than five. No doubt scaling back helped to convince investors, but will PP recognize the opportunity it has to exploit the shorter format and recapture the unique nature of soaps that has been lost over the years? I’m encouraged by the relatively small, multi-generational (of the 14 contract players, eight are over 40; of the eight, two are over 50, four past 60) cast that’s been assembled for One Life to Live. All of the characters are deeply-connected, with long histories between and among them, so the elements are in place for PP to turn economic necessity into the mother of reinvention. The rebooted AMC and OLTL are slated to premiere some time in April.

When Irna Phillips blazed the trail for serial drama in the 1950s, the television landscape was minuscule, three networks, and relatively expensive to enter — the $10,000 cost of the ATWT pilot was twice the median household income at the time. Today, as the price of technology continues to drop, anyone can make and upload video to a media landscape incalculably larger than 60 years ago.  Since the mid-1990s, the Web has been flooded with mostly free content of varying quality, including an ever-increasing number of online serials designed to appeal to soap fans. Like their primetime counterparts, these Web-series are most often considered soap operas only by virtue of their seriality.  Despite barebones budgets and minimal monetization, many of these series, juggle large casts of characters squeezed into short (7-12 minute) episodes, limiting possibilities for deep viewers engagement. Only a handful have fully engaged my inner soap fan. My favorite, the critically acclaimed Anyone But Me, premiered in 2008 and ran for 26 episodes over three years before the series finale in January 2012.

Last May, while Prospect Park was off the grid getting its ducks in a row, there was a small news item on the We Love Soaps site announcing a new YouTube channel, WIGS: Where It Gets Interesting. The channel promised “high-end, original, scripted series, short films, and documentaries, all starring female leads.” WIGS co-creator, Rodrigo Garcia, had long plumbed the vertical storytelling axis in films like Things You Tell Just By Looking At Her, Ten Tiny Love Stories and Nine Lives, along with  HBO’s In Treatment. He brought the same sensibility to the work he created for WIGS.

Blue

Serena

 Celia

 

WIGS co-creator, filmmaker Jon Avnet, shares his partner’s storytelling sensibility, but even more important is how the two men went about creating the channel. With first-round seed money from Google, WIGS  became an official YouTube channel, making the project attractive to media partner, News Corp, and advertisers, AMEX and Unilever. As the pieces fell into place, including collective bargaining agreements with the entertainment unions, Avnet and Garcia invited more than a dozen writers and directors to create projects built around a female lead. Established actors, aware that their industry is in flux, were eager to participate even if it meant working for scale.

Before WIGS went live on May 14, Avnet and Garcia had produced enough content to run three episodes a week for almost seven months. Enough time to build an audience: more than 25 million views and 110,000 subscribers. The first season of WIGS included a few documentaries and short films, but the channel’s foundation was13 scripted serial dramas made up of 2-15 episodes running 7-10 minutes with small casts — sometimes as few as two characters.

Last month, FOX Broadcasting signed a multi-year deal with WIGS “to expand the breadth of offerings through the WIGS channel, and test and nurture dramatic concepts and talent in the digital realm..with an eye toward building content that can be programmed on FOX and/or other channels.” On March 15th, WIGS returns with a second season of Blue, followed later in the spring by the next installments of Lauren, and a new series Paloma.

Avnet and Garcia created WIGS specifically with women as the target audience. So, what to make of one commenter’s question, “what does it say that I, a 35-year old man, find myself addicted to WIGS?” What to make of the substantial number of women who were (and are) deeply engaged fans of Friday Night Lights and Men of a Certain Age, both shows ostensibly for and about men? The appeal of vertical storytelling clearly transcends gender; what about other demographic markers? What are the characteristics of viewers drawn to the vertical storytelling axis?

These questions, and others yet to be articulated, need to be explored before vertical storytellers can identify and maximize their potential audience. The data generated by the 110,000+ WIGS subscribers contain essential information for brand development, which, properly analyzed, can also inform the qualitative insights necessary to fully identify viewership.

 

Where has this project led you? Now that you’ve put together a personal reflection on your relationship to As the World Turns, what’s the next step in your ongoing research about the soap opera’s place in our cultural history and in our contemporary culture?

Probably the most frustrating part of writing about soap opera has been the lack of a framework within which to consider soap opera’s place in our contemporary culture. Identifying the underlying factors has been challenging because there’s no hierarchical relationship among them. Over the past several years, I’ve posted over 100 short articles on my blog. This piece represents my first effort to begin crafting those pieces into a larger context; I’ve barely scratched the surface.

I first began writing about soaps as a fan. And it’s as a fan, saddened and angered with the premature demise of show after show carrying on (consciously or not) the legacy that Irna Phillips began when she created As the World Turns, that I began exploring what it would take to carve out a place for this kind of storytelling in today’s rapidly-shifting media landscape. Personal as my efforts have been, this work can only continue with the collaboration of media scholars and professionals along with institutional support.

On related fronts, I’m currently completing the syllabus for a class, “The Influence and Evolution of the American Soap Opera, I’ll be pitching to Boston area schools, and considering the possibility of a book to follow.  Also in progress: a proposal for an Irna Phillips biography.

Lynn Liccardo is a longtime soap opera journalist and blogger. Her critical observations on soaps – their content, the industry that produces them, and the culture that both loves them and loves to ridicule them – connect soap opera’s past and present with its future and begin to form a larger framework within which to more fully examine the genre. She released an ebook of essays detailing the final years of As the World Turns, entitled as the world stopped turning… Among her other publications are “Who Really Watches the Daytime Soaps” (1996, Soap Opera Weekly); “Irna Phillips: Brief life of soap opera’s single mother 1901-1973” (2012, Harvard Magazine). Her essay, “The Ironic and Convoluted Relationship between Daytime and Primetime Soap Opera,” was published in The Survival of Soap Opera: Transformations for a New Media Era (co-edited by Futures of Entertainment Fellows Sam Ford, Abigail De Kosnik and C. Lee Harrington).

Sam Ford is co-editor (with Abigail De Kosnik and C. Lee Harrington) of The Survival of Soap Opera: Transformations for a New Media Era (2011, University Press of Mississippi) and co-author (with Henry Jenkins and Joshua Green) of Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture(2013, NYU Press). He is also Director of Digital Strategy with Peppercomm, an affiliate with both MIT Comparative Media Studies and Western Kentucky University’s Popular Culture Studies Program, and a frequent Fast Company contributor. Sam serves on WOMMA’s Membership Ethics Advisory Panel and was named 2011 Social Media Innovator of the Year by Bulldog Reporter. He is a Kentucky Press Association award-winning journalist and has written for Harvard Business ReviewWall Street Journal,BusinessWeekThe Huffington PostPortfolioChief MarketerThe Public Relations StrategistPR News,Bulldog ReporterThe Christian Science Monitor, and CommPRO.biz. Sam lives in Bowling Green, KY, with wife, Amanda, and daughters, Emma and Harper.