Fostering Civic Engagement in a Networked Era: An Interview with Eric Gordon and Paul Mihailidis (Part One)

In spring 2015, I ran a series of guest posts on this blog to celebrate the launch of The Civic Media Project website, which Eric Gordon and Paul Mihailidis, the Co-Directors of Emerson College’s Engagement Lab,  had developed in anticipation of their MIT Press book, Civic Media: Technology, Design, Practice.

Well, that book is finally out and in the world.

The new book includes essays by some of the key thinkers on contemporary media and politics, including W. Lance Bennett, Beth Simone Noveck, Beth Coleman, Renee Hobbes, Roman Gerodimos, Elizabeth Soep, Molly Sauter, Ceasar McDowell, and Joseph Kahne, among many others. My research team contributed an essay exploring superheroes, the civic imagination, and contemporary youth activism — an extension of the argument we developed through By Any Media Necessary: The New Youth Activism.  The book moves between conceptual statements about the current moment in the development of civic media and more focused case studies of projects in the U.S. and around the world.

Here’s how Gordon and Milhailidis described their understanding of the concept of Civic Media:

Civic life is comprised of the attention and actions an individual devotes to a common good. Participating in a human rights rally, creating and sharing a video online about unfair labor practices, connecting with neighbors after a natural disaster: these are all civic actions wherein the actor seeks to benefit a perceived common good. But where and how civic life takes place, is an open question. The lines between the private and the public, the self-interested and the civic are blurring as digital cultures transform means and patterns of communication around the world.

As the definition of civic life is in flux, there is urgency in defining and questioning the mediated practices that compose it. Civic media are the mediated practices of designing, building, implementing or using digital tools to intervene in or participate in civic life.

This past summer, I had the privilege to spend time with Eric Gordon and Paul Mihailidis at the Salzburg Academy for Media and Global Change. Paul has directed this summer program for the past decade and Eric regularly participates as part of the affiliated faculty, engaging students with both theoretical and design-focused workshops. This past year, they brought together undergraduate and graduate students from thirty different nations to reflect on the changing media landscape, to develop a deeper understanding of the mechanisms for fostering social change and political mobilization, and to put their emerging grasp of media literacy to work by collaborating to produce an online magazine, Move, which explored the current refuge crisis and global migration more generally. I was proud to be the keynote speaker at this program and to have my research group run a series of workshops and seminars with the students concerning our work on the civic imagination.

You might also want to check out this essay the two wrote for the current issue of the Journal of Digital Media Literacy dedicated to how we help students make the transition from voice to influence.

What became clear to me from my time with these two remarkable scholar-practitioners was how deep and original their thinking was about the future of civic media.  They both knew how to create a collaborative environment where original thinking and creative experimentation took place, and they both pushed everyone involved to dig deeper and question established thinking about the nature of civic engagement in a networked culture.

Returning to the book today, I am struck by the ways that its project is an extension or amplification of what they brought to the students during this summer program.  I can’t wait to introduce this book to my students at USC; it provides resources that can help redefine how we teach civic and political life.

While we were there together, we hatched the plan to do an interview with Eric and Paul about the Civic Media book. Across the following three installments, we criss-cross the core themes that animate the book and suggest further developments in their thinking.

You begin the book with a core question: “What does civic engagement look like in a digital age?” I can imagine some traditionalists having issues with this formulation, since it assumes a link between media/communication infrastructure and civic engagement/practice. So, what’s the case for thinking about civic engagement through the lens of civic media more generally and digital media in particular?

We start the book with a question about appearances. What does civic engagement look like when people are connecting to their various communities online? When people gather in public squares or head to the voting booth, the meaning of such actions appear to be clear. They are civically engaging. But when people connect to each other via their phones or computers, independent of the reason or purpose of such connection, the actions might appear more like self-indulgent distractions than civic engagement.

So, at the start of the book, we don’t assume a link between media/communication infrastructure and civic engagement/practice; we actually assume a distortion in appearances, and we encourage a certain comfort with that distortion. From there, we seek to reframe civic engagement using the lens of civic media. Without claiming that civic engagement in democratic cultures is fundamentally different, we claim that when you expand the frame of civic engagement to include a myriad of practices previously ignored, the practice field of civic engagement changes. And, inevitably, as you expand the field of practice of any domain, you will slowly and empirically expand the definition of that domain.  

How are you defining “civic media” in this book? To what degree can we describe particular media platforms as “civic” as opposed to specific media practices? How do we decide that something is NOT civic media?

We define civic media as the “technologies, designs, and practices that produce and reproduce the sense of being in the world with others toward common good.” We offer this intentionally broad definition to accommodate what we see as a growing range of civic practices. And we hope that the term is generative, not restrictive – that it sparks the imagination about what it might include. But this isn’t simply a casual investigation.

There is urgency in defining the term, as there is danger of these emerging practices of civic engagement simply getting lumped into larger media trends, or on the flip side, getting written off as anomalies narrowly defined. The term civic media suggests an “acting with” as a means of achieving a common good. It is inclusive of the range of intentional actions that people take with and through technologies, designs, or practices (aka media).

As for what the term excludes: media with civic content that is passively consumed and media actively consumed that stands to benefit only the individual actor. So, on one hand we would likely exclude an effort like iCivics, which is a great example of classroom games with civics content for middle school kids, and we would exclude something like Pokemon Go, which is a highly interactive, place-based game, but playing it (at least as it most commonly used) stands to benefit only the individual actor.

In both cases, however, there can be emergent uses that would move them into the civic media category. There is something unique about civic media – not in the technologies or the tools themselves, but in the ways people are using them.

Some would argue that many of the core platforms of the web are profoundly anti-civic or non-civic (or at least anti-social) in their effects. You will find plenty of critics of Youtube, Twitter, Facebook, and other sites in terms of damages done to civic life. Can we reconcile such critiques with the idea that at least some uses of these same technologies may actively contribute to civic engagement?

Absolutely. Tools facilitate actions. YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, etc. are tools that can be used for a range of activities. Just as a hammer can be used to build a house and to knock someone over the head, social media can be used for mobilizing a social justice campaign and bullying a peer with hateful speech.

But, as Marshall McLuhan said, technologies are not valueless: their form has implicit or explicit meaning. For example, the design of Facebook values broad connectivity over intimacy. And while it might be used for intimate conversations, one could argue that the tool predisposes its users towards particular outcomes. Such is the case with civic media.

While tools are malleable and multi-functional, they do carry with them certain values that compel users towards particular outcomes. Consider the domain of civic technology. The tools designed and implemented by government are meant to facilitate or streamline government processes, from paying parking tickets to providing input on urban plans.

These tools are designed for particular purposes in particular contexts and while they can be misused or appropriated, the technology largely shapes social interaction. The category of civic media is inclusive of these single function technologies, but is not limited to them. It is not a descriptor of tools. Instead, it provides a context to analyze the intentional actions that people take with tools, designed or modified for civic outcomes.



Comics and Canons: An Interview with Bart Beaty (Part Three)

You make an interesting point that R. Crumb has been at a disadvantage in contemporary value judgements because he produced short stories rather than graphic novels. In literature, we can think of authors such as Edgar Allen Poe or Flannery O’Connor who have entered the canon as short story writers, and certainly playwrights can enter the literary canon and not simply novelists. So what might this suggest about the ways that the canon may be limiting our understandings of the range of options within comics as a medium?

To me, the Crumb example shows how much more narrow the comics studies canon is than the literary canon, because I don’t think that there are as many opportunities for Crumb as there are for Poe or O’Connor. The primacy of the novel in literature departments is a late arriving phenomenon – literature departments focused on poetry and drama for decades prior to the turn towards the novel, so there are obvious spaces for writers in other forms.

Comics studies has championed the graphic novel nearly to the total exclusion of all other types of comics (consider how little comics studies focusses on comic strips, despite their much longer lineage and higher general cultural visibility). So Crumb risks being left out of a lot of current discussions simply because he does not fit the norm of what we do. That to me is a real problem with how we approach the study of the field because it writes out almost all of the work that was produced in the first fifty years of the comic book format, and, frankly, the majority of it in the second fifty years as well.

Jack Kirby poses a different set of issues in your account, as do other superhero creators, because his reputation is grounded in popular and commercial criteria more than in the art world. Thinking about comics in terms of canon formation raises issues about the relationship between academic judgements and those constructed by fans or other more populist institutions.  How might we describe the criteria fans have used to identify the most important artists and how do they differ from academic criteria? One could argue that a similar split exists between novels that are taught in literature classes and “classics” that generations read and like but do not get much respect from literature professors — Anne of Green Gables, Treasure Island, the Wizard of Oz, etc. Or we might think of the role which westerns and their directors played in the early emergence of film studies (or later, melodramas) seeing an exploration of the tension between genres and authors as a central issue defining the field.

There is a really big gulf growing between comics scholars and comics fans, or at least between certain types of scholars and certain types of fans, and I do wonder how much of that will close over time. While we’ve been talking a lot about graphic novels, the fact is, as we point out in The Greatest Comic Book, there is a really substantial emphasis on superhero comic books in contemporary comics scholarship.

It too can be somewhat narrow in its interest. I’ve heard or read maybe a dozen papers on Ms Marvel, for example, a very recent comic book with a Muslim teenager as the protagonist. There are a lot of scholars who want to talk about this title and the way it addresses important cultural debates, and that seems very natural and very relevant. For the most part, the vast bulk of superhero comics goes unremarked upon by superhero scholars and the scholars set up their own canon, and Jack Kirby occupies the top space there.

What is interesting to me about superhero artists is that each generation will develop their own favourites and the turn-over is extremely rapid. It is a very star-driven industry, and stars can fade quickly. John Byrne and Frank Miller were the most popular comic book artists when I was a teen, but by the time I was twenty it was Todd McFarlane, Jim Lee and Rob Liefeld – artists that I personally felt little connection to. The change was quick.

Kirby has endured better than most others, partly because he has a large cadre of supporters proclaiming him the “King of Comics” and who explain his importance to later generations of fans. The criteria that seem to most drive Kirby to the top is the sense that he generated all of these incredible characters who are still popular to this day, and that he completely revolutionized comic book storytelling.

That latter is striking for me, because it is the type of thing that becomes less self-evident to readers over time. Kirby’s dynamism is most striking in contrast to the staid comics that DC was producing in the 1960s, just as Godard’s cutting was shocking in comparison to the traditions of French cinema of his day. In an era, half a century later, where those advances have been internalized by everyone that followed they become harder to see. I think this is one of the great losses that occurs when we focus only on a very small canon – the breakthroughs are less evident and need to be accepted on faith. Many of my students, who weren’t even born when Jack Kirby died, have a lot of trouble seeing what is so different about his Fantastic Four because they have no exposure to anything else from that period to compare it to.

You write about avant garde comics, comics which are understood within an “aesthetic of difficulty”, a standard they inherited from the modernist tradition in film and literature. What does it mean to read comics through an avant garde lens when so many people conceive of it almost exclusively as a popular art form?  How are artists and readers negotiating those contradictions?

When I was writing Unpopular Culture, which is about this tension, several of the cartoonists that I write about in that book got angry with me when I referred to their work as “avant grade” or “unpopular”. I mean, really viscerally angry with me. I thought one was going to hit me.

It seems to me that comics is one of the few art forms that modernism forgot. Yes, there was George Herriman, but there were very few other examples of cartoonists drawing on modernist traditions. Certainly in the American comic book modernism seems to have had almost no influence at all. Meanwhile, film, painting, literature, music, drama – all of these forms went through a modernist phase. I think that this is one of the reasons that comics were looked down upon – there was almost no one working in the field who sought to cultivate a serious readership. When Michael Chabon writes about comics and modernism in Kavalier and Clay it really does seem like a fantastical element.

Nonetheless, there are a small but growing number of cartoonists who are interested in these issues. In the US we might go back to Raw as the beginning of that, and you can see this level of difficulty in the work of an artist like Gary Panter. That tradition has continued through Paper Rad, the artists involved in Kramer’s Ergot, and so on. To a large degree this is the fringe of the alternative comics scene. A lot of it is that rare form of comics that is highly influenced by contemporary art practices, and a lot of it seems more at home in a gallery than in a bookstore.

I think that there is still some resistance to this tendency – some people get their backs up about it because what they like is the idea that comics is a less judgemental space, one that is more open and accommodating. When Kramer’s Ergot did their issue that had the retail price of about $100 a lot of readers got upset about that; they argued that it was exclusionary to produce a huge oversized and expensive limited edition comic book. Avant gardes have always put some part of the audience on edge and they are genuinely exclusionary and that sits poorly in the comics world because it is relatively small.  I don’t think that the average cinema-goer gets angry about the films of Jonas Mekas – they simply ignore them. In the smaller and more insular comics world it may be more difficult to ignore these kinds of provocations and interventions.


Some of the sharpest critics of the literary or art world or cinematic canons have been women and minorities who argue that their contributions have systematically been dismissed or marginalized within existing practices of canon formation. And, sure enough, your research shows that their contributions have been undervalued within comics studies as well. So, what’s the best path forward towards a more inclusive and diverse understanding of comics? Are we better off rethinking the criteria by which canons are formed or rejecting the idea of canons altogether?


There is a part of me that believes that comics studies does a little bit better than some other domains in thinking about gender and racial difference simply by virtue of the fact that it is so focussed on the past thirty years, which has been a time of greater – but insufficient – inclusiveness in the field. In this way the historical myopia of comics studies can actually be reconfigured as a feature rather than as a flaw.

Moreover, there is a clear push in these areas. I could cite Hillary Chute’s book about women who do autobiographical comics, the anthology The Blacker the Ink, Carolyn Cocca’s new book on gender and the superhero, and Cinema Journal’s roundtable on diversity and comics studies to name but a few. If one is inclined to be positive of canons and canonicity in comics you can note that, because the field is still so relatively new, that there is a great deal of flux and that it is still easy to make space. Marajane Satrapi is an excellent example of this. Persepolis was one of the most taught and most studied comics within only a few years of its translation into English.

The flip side would be that we still have an awful long way to go on the diversity front, and we risk arriving at a very constricted sense of diversity that simply tries to integrate difference into the existing structures without actually stopping to reflect on how practices of exclusion have historically operated in the comics industry and within comics studies.


You talk about the concept of “world comics” as a way of developing a more encompassing understanding of the medium. How might we define a “world’s comics” approach? What kinds of works would this allow us to discuss that are excluded from current understandings of the medium? Are world comics necessary understood as the graphic novel equivalent of the international arts cinema or is there a way to create such a category that would include works from both avant garde and popular culture traditions?

One of the things that I find most frustrating about comics studies is the geographical and cultural blinkers that exist on all sides. I think that the easiest way to be an unread comics scholar is to write about foreign language works. If you write about works that haven’t been translated yet, you can really expect few people to read you. I think that one of the best recent monographs on a single cartoonists is Fabrice Leroy’s Sfar So Far, but because it is written in English and Sfar is best known in France I’m not sure that it has been widely read (even though Sfar’s comics have been reasonably well translated into English).

I’m right now working on an article about two books that are unlikely to ever appear in English (one of them is by Sfar, ironically) and part of me wonders if anyone will ever read the piece. The same is true about work on certain forms of manga, and even more true about comics from the global south. We can be extremely parochial. Of course, this is a complaint that is common across the board. My colleagues in Comp Lit will make the same observation about world literature.

Today I think that comics studies lacks a strong comparative tradition, and one of the reasons for this is that I think a lot of us worry about lacking the competency to do that work. One of my favourite cartoonists is Jiro Taniguchi – I have dozens of his books in French and English that I’ve read multiple times. If you asked me to write a book simply to express my admiration for a cartoonist, I would pick him. I am somewhat reluctant to write about him in depth, however, because I am acutely aware that I lack the cultural understanding to talk about him in the context of Japanese cartooning.

A lot of the writing on Satrapi that I don’t like is the writing that misses obvious connections between her work and that of many of her French contemporaries, and I am keenly aware that that is likely the type of work that I would produce about Taniguchi. So I wind up saying nothing, and, unfortunately, for the most part nothing gets said about him.

I really don’t think that “world comics”, if we can call it that, mirrors the art house, however, because it is often some of the most popular foreign language comics that wind up translated. Manga is a great example of this, where blockbuster after blockbuster have arrived in English but far fewer indy-style comics have been translated.

That said, certain blockbusters are unknown. I think few Americans would have any idea about how unbelievably popular Zep and his character Titeuf are in French-speaking Europe. Those books have sold more than 16 million copies but have never appeared here. I mean, Titeuf has an asteroid named after him, and the character is almost completely unknown here.

The logic of translation is incredibly hit and miss in comics, and it makes comics studies tricky. When I translated Groensteen’s The System of Comics I was acutely aware that a lot of readers of my edition of that book were going to be lost by the casual way he drops in references to works that are exceptionally well-known in France and completely unknown here. When I worked later with Ann Miller on The French Comics Theory Reader we were much more attentive to footnoting those kinds of things.

The other project that I’m working on at the moment is really addressed to a lot of these questions. With Frederik Køhlert I have a grant to research the trans-national reception and discussion of Charlie Hebdo. That magazine is an example that raises all kinds of questions and issues about cross-cultural competencies. There are literally moments where Frederik and I would sit in my office reading old issues of Charlie Hebdo and ask ourselves “what does that even mean? Who is that?”. I mean, at the basic denotative level we don’t know the references to French politicians in the 1970s, let alone what the specifics of the jokes might be. So far it has been some tough slogging, but it’s also the kind of work that both agree needs to get done in comics studies.


Comics and Canons: An Interview with Bart Beaty (Part Two)

Archie would probably end up on nobody’s list of the “greatest comics,” but it may well be one of the most pervasive comics in that many comics readers pass through an Archie phase at one time or another, at least those who start reading comics in their childhood.  Is Archie a “plausible text” in the sense you are discussing here and if not, why not?

I chose to work on Archie Comics precisely because I thought it was “implausible”. Indeed, I thought it might be the most implausible text that I could have suggested, and that was the reason that I suggested it!

The series that Twelve-Cent Archie appears in from Rutgers is focused on each volume highlighting an important text. It is an avowedly canon-building publishing program. When I was invited to contribute one of the first books to that series I was quite reluctant to do so, because I really didn’t want to help build that kind of enterprise for many of the reasons that we lay out in Greatest Comic Book (which is a bit of a deliberate expansion of Archie, and a comment on the series). I quite clearly remember saying, “A series like this would never include a book on something like Archie Comics”. To his eternal credit, the series editor, Corey Creekmur, immediately responded that it would and that he wanted me to write it. So my big mouth got me in trouble.

The problem then was obvious: how do I make Archie plausible? I knew that I wanted at least one of the arguments of the book to be a critique of notions of greatness, of importance, but I wasn’t sure exactly how to stretch that out to 80,000 words. The fact is that Archie Comics are very standardized – that is a huge part of their appeal for their readers – but that made them a challenge to approach. So much of that book was determining how to talk about innovation within standardization and the subtle differences that become apparent only in routines.

Twelve-Cent Archie is very much a book that only a full professor would write. If one of my own graduate students had suggested it to me I would have counselled them against it. I have chaired a lot of hiring committees and I have seen how tough it can be for scholars working on non-traditional topics to get past the initial screening; this would have been a career killer for an early career academic. I think it’s notably also the only book that I have written that I didn’t receive research funding for – I didn’t even ask, really, because I could see that writing on the wall.

Why might such a work be worthy of serious study and what can it tell us about value judgements in comics more generally?

After the Archie book came out, it was widely reviewed – particularly here in Canada. I wound up winning my university’s research prize for it and I still recall sitting on the side of the stage with my university’s senior leadership sitting in the front row of the auditorium as my dean talked about my book about Archie. The other recipients were all trying to cure cancer, or end homelessness, and there I was getting the same award for a semiotic analysis of Betty Cooper’s hair. It seemed to me that I had taken the idea that is so common in the natural sciences – that humanities scholars are frivolous – and turned up the dial all the way to eleven.

That said, I get almost an email a week about that book, almost all of them from people who have never read any other scholarly work. Archie Comics have a profound resonance for millions of readers, and they are amazed to see someone take it seriously. Of course, I also get weekly emails from people accusing me of being an obvious drain on the public purse…


You noted in Comics vs. Art that comics have not necessarily benefited from a general tendency in the arts to think about hybrid forms as “particularly complex works that unite disparate elements, thereby accruing values attached to each.”  Perhaps comics have, instead, been evaluated according to somewhat older arguments about medium specificity which distrusted hybridity. See, for example, Rudolph Arnheim’s critique of talking films as “unnatural” and “mongrel” because “two media are fighting with each other” and no consistent set of aesthetic standards can apply. Artistic distaste for comics dates back to the early 20th century where these ideas about artistic purity were dominant and they have been hard to escape. In many ways, the attempt to read graphic novels through a post-modernist frame would seem to be an attempt to rethink those judgements, with mixed results. So, how might we think about the aesthetic value of comics in relation to this older tradition of seeking medium specificity?

More than any other question I think that this is an issue that my work has always been grappling with. From the beginning, some of the most important and influential comics scholarship has been interested in this question: what do comics do that other media don’t? And how do they operate? We can think of Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics and Thierry Groensteen’s The System of Comics as key exemplars here, but there is really a whole host of scholars who turned to this question very early on in the history of comics studies. This isn’t surprising: medium specificity was the subject of a lot of early film criticism as well, from Eisenstein to Bazin and so on. It seems to be a stage that most fields go through.

One of the books that I had hoped to write would have taken this topic head on. I tentatively called it “Comics Off the Page” and I was interested in examples where cartoonists worked in non-comics media. I was inspired by seeing “Happy Hooligan is Still Moving”, the dance that Art Spiegelman choreographed with Pilobolus Dance Theatre in New York. I thought I could shed some interesting light on how comics work by examining how they interact with things that people don’t think of as comics. Unfortunately, that project really bogged down. I couldn’t find an interesting way to talk about it without simply getting into long descriptive passages of the works, most of which aren’t available to readers. I think that it works well as a lecture – I’ve had a lot of success presenting some of the preliminary thoughts – but it falls apart on the page. Ironic, given my proposed title.

My new project, with Ben Woo and Nick Sousanis, seems to be working better. It’s called What Were Comics?, and last year we received a really sizeable grant from the Canadian government to do the work. We’re interested in looking at the history of what comic book were over time. This has helped lift the discussion out of abstraction. Instead of thinking “comics could be this or they could be that”, which is an area where Nick particularly excels, we’re a lot more focused on dealing concrete shifts and showing what actually did happen.

One of the things that I’ve learned in talking about these projects is that most people view comics in a more restricted way than I do. A lot of people seem to regard comics as what you draw on bristol board and then publish in comic books. Webcomics has shifted this a bit, but it hasn’t shifted it to the point that comics are seen to be really in dialogue with other art forms. Painters borrow freely from comics, much more it seems than cartoonists borrow from contemporary painters. I think some of this has to do with the way that MFA programs teach (or, more accurately, don’t teach) comics, but it is striking how isolated comics can still be in the world of arts.

Across several of your books, you note a number of attempts by authors and artists — most directly in terms of Art Spiegelman —  to promote their own legacy. What strategies do you think have been successful for comics creators as they have sought to demonstrate their status as auteurs worthy of entry into the canon of graphic storytelling? How do these approaches resemble or differ from those deployed by artists working in other media — painting, cinema, literature?

I think that the institutions of the comics world are much weaker than they are in other art worlds. The steps towards becoming an important painter seem to be really clearly laid out: get a degree, get a gallery, and so on. There are so few examples of cartoonists becoming successful that it is not so clear what the route is.

Once upon a time it was clearly: get a commercially successful daily strip. All of the “greats” from the first half of the twentieth-century, in the United States, were strip cartoonists. Many were beloved, and many were household names – real superstars in the culture. Obviously that route is vanishing quickly.

Spiegelman showed a very different path, which was create “one great work”, and a number of people have successfully followed that model. It’s a model that is very akin to literature.

The flip side would be Lynda Barry, who struggled in semi-obscurity for a long time to the point that she considered quitting before Drawn and Quarterly shone a new spotlight on her amazing body of work. That’s also very akin to literature, unfortunately. A critical hit will provide a foundation for future work, and then the issue becomes follow-up.

Interestingly, in the more mainstream area of comics production reputation building seems to be more similar to contemporary filmmaking. The ideal trajectory might be to self-publish and build a reputation, get hired to write or draw a low-level superhero title, turn that into a success and do higher profile work until your name is more important than the characters you write. Then you jump to Image, launch your own title and cash in, I guess.

I think that there remains a bifurcation that we used to refer to as mainstream and alternative, and the collaborative and (generally) solitary approaches that are favoured by each indicates different pathways to longevity.


Comics and Canons: An Interview with Bart Beaty (Part One)

Comic Studies is one of the areas of research which have really captured my attention and imagination in recent years.  We are seeing comic studies panels included in more and more academic conferences, ranging from the Modern Language Association to the Society for Cinema and Media Studies, not to mention comic studies panels as a featured element at San Diego Comic-Con (and other such gatherings around the country). Comic Studies has been the focus on special issues of many established journals as well as several journals focused fully on this topic. There has been a record number of new publications about comics over the past few years coming from many of the most distinguished university presses.  There are distinguished research facilities such as the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum at Ohio State University, which is a mecca for anyone wanting to research this topic. There are a growing number of college courses focused around comics and graphic novels, including my own here at the University of Southern California.

Bart Beaty, a professor at the University of Calgary, has been a major force behind many of these efforts. To date, Beaty has published 13 books on comics and graphic storytelling, including major translations of French comics theory and original research in comics history, theory, and criticism. He has been one of the most thoughtful writers about the cultural debates around comics (UnPopular Culture: Transforming the European Comic Book in the 1980s; Frederic Wetham and the Critique of Mass Culture; Comics Versus Art). His most recent books include Twelve Cent Archie and with Benjamin Woo, The Greatest Comic Book of All Time: Symbolic Capital and the Field of American Comic Books.  Here, Beaty and Woo share their thoughts about the emergence of a canon in comic studies and specifically about how faculty decide which books to study and teach, given the emergence of a new academic field around what was once seen as a highly disreputable medium. The authors offer compelling case studies of a range of different candidates for consideration as the best or most important work to emerge from graphic storytelling, using each to illustrate different principles around which canon-formation might occur, but also raising questions about what’s being left out, what’s not being given the consideration it is due. This is an important book for anyone who wants to understand how cultural hierarchies emerge and shape our relations with media.

This interview can be seen as a continuation of that project, as Bart and I circle back through some of the key exemplars from that book, and ask some further questions about cultural capital and the value of studying comics within an academic setting.

Some have worried that a core canon (Spiegelman, Ware, Bechdel, Satrapi, Gaiman, Crumb, Moore, Sacco) has emerged in comics studies prematurely — that too much of the early writing defining the field circles around a small number of writers and works and as a consequence, we are constraining our methodologies and theories to reflect that limited sample. Would you agree?


This is the subject of so much of what Benjamin Woo and I wrote about  in our book The Greatest Comic Book of All Time!, and I absolutely do agree. In our first chapter we attempted to put some data behind what seems to be a pretty common understanding about comics studies: that it has been thoroughly concerned with a small handful of creators and works published over the past thirty years. In the book we surveyed the field of scholarly publishing on comics in order to demonstrate just how narrow the work being done can be. What we found is that comics studies is disproportionately concerned with a very small handful of creators and texts in comparison to cognate fields. So, yes, I absolutely agree with that.

I also think that you touch on something more important here, though, which is the theoretical and methodological restriction that are currently being applied to comics. I think I would first say that to my mind there is a much greater theoretical diversity within the field at present than a methodological diversity. Consider empirical approaches to comics. While there is an increasing amount of work being done using empirical methods it is notable that most of the key players in that area can be brought together at a single conference next year in Bremen. To take another example, if we consider how much work is being done on comics that would require an ethics application because it relies on human subjects, I think the number of projects would be extremely small.

The vast majority of comics studies work being done in the English-speaking academy stems from faculty and students trained in literature departments, and it relies on the kind of interpretive close-readings that are still so paramount within those departments. That seems to have had a tremendous impact on the shaping of the canon: it is much easier for a graduate student to convince a committee that the work of Alison Bechdel or Chris Ware is “sophisticated” enough to be akin to contemporary literary fiction that it would be a credible subject for a dissertation.

How might we encourage comics scholars to move beyond such a canon?

For me that is the million dollar question. When I was asked to give the keynote address at the International Comics Arts Forum in Columbus two years ago part of me wanted to call my talk “Comics Studies: You’re All Doing It Wrong”. Needless to say, I didn’t do that, but I’m sure that subtext was picked up by many in my audience.

One of the things I argued in that talk was a paraphrase of Fredric Jameson’s famous dictum that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. I quipped that it was easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of the dominance of literary methods in comics studies.

Given that the vast bulk of comics studies occurs in departments of literature, and faced with the reality that a literary canon exists and that it structures the way that those departments teach and research, we really are faced with two choices. The first is to simply accede to the logics of canonization while pushing the boundaries. We can argue that Art Spiegelman, Alison Bechdel, and Marjane Satrapi are every bit as deserving of serious study as Phillip Roth, Toni Morrison, and Zadie Smith and try to force those authors into the discussion.

In a lot of ways, this is what film studies scholars did in the 1960s – they demonstrated that Bergman, Godard, and Kurosawa could be studied in a manner that was akin to the study of literature. This is a perfectly valid approach and it has gained us, as comics scholars, quite a bit. I think that to the extent that courses in comics studies even exist today in many universities is a testament to the work that was done to advance this particular way of thinking.

The other option is the much more difficult one – possibly an impossible one. When we argue that our understanding of notions of inherent quality are simply ideological constructs that have obscured our understanding of how culture operates is more vexed, and to suggest that we fundamentally reshape our curricula, indeed the very basis of our disciplines, is just a non-starter for most people. It is an almost impossible task. In my own department the suggestion that there are not certain writers who “have to be” taught makes people think that you’re completely naive.

Your own work has been expansive in its choices of objects for study — ranging from a strong focus on Eurocomics to a book centered around Archie. How do you personally decide which comics are worthy of your scholarly attention?

It’s my sense from talking to my colleagues and working with my students that many of them come to the work that they want to talk about first and foremost. So many of the Honours students that I supervise come to me and say “I want to write my thesis about Blankets” or “I want to write about Jessica Jones”. It’s only after some discussion that they step back and arrive at the theory that might structure their analysis, or the method that they might best use to illuminate these works. The concern I’ve always had with this approach is that I think it tells me more about the critic than the text under discussion.

Personally, I’ve not yet written a book because I was interested in the comics themselves. With Unpopular Culture, which was about European comics in the 1990s, I wanted to talk about the way I saw the comics cultures of Western Europe evolving in real time. I thought that there was a remarkable transformation taking place, and that was what interested me. I wound up talking about certain comics because of the way that they highlighted certain tendencies. Some readers have suggested to me that I must really like the work of Lewis Trondheim because he is the only artist who gets his own chapter in that book, but the reality is that he is just so unbelievably prolific that he made the easiest case study with which to summarize the themes of the book (though I do enjoy a great deal of his work, if I’m being honest).

Twelve-Cent Archie is really the only one where I picked the topic before figuring out what I would say about it. Indeed, I was really worried that when I sat down to do the research I wouldn’t find sufficient material to proceed. Generally, though, I’m not that interested in promoting certain comics with my work. I don’t read the work of Rob Liefeld much (though I did read some Deadpool around the time the film was released), but Ben and I thought he was the best example of the a certain type of commercial comics, so we wrote about him in Greatest Comic Book. I will say, also, that that chapter shocked some people. Two of our anonymous referees thought it was self-evidently pointless to include a chapter on such an “insignificant” creator, which is a perfect example of how ideologies of quality obscure the field and the kinds of questions that we allow ourselves to research.

Art Spiegelman has talked about the process of reading comics as graphic novels as “a Faustian deal because the medium gets tainted by its aspirations towards legitimacy.” Would you agree with that assessment? What is gained or lost when comics are read through such a strong literary lens?

I absolutely agree. When I moved to an English department in 2010 (I had previously taught in a Media Studies department) I indicated that I could teach courses on “Comics” and my department chair wanted me to teach on “Graphic Novels” instead. I objected that that wouldn’t permit me to teach, for instance, comic strips and I was met with some departmental resistance. We settled on “Comics and Graphic Novels”, which strikes me a bit as “Ice and Frozen Water”, but the concession got the course on the books. Six years later I was able to get “and Graphic Novels” dropped.

The central gain of the graphic novel for cartoonists has been the ability to get them into bookstores and before a broader public, and, really importantly, to get them reviewed in The New York Times and The Guardian and The New Yorker. I do agree that without the success of Maus, and the creation of the graphic novel as a publishing category, that comics would be in a much weaker space reputationally. The graphic novel allowed us, as comics scholars, to shoehorn our work into the curriculum over time. That is a huge advantage.

When I began working on comics as a graduate student in the mid-1990s there were literally no peer-refereed journals in the field. There was a single scholarly conference (ICAF). No professional organization. Few courses. No programs. Moreover, we had active resistance from groups like the MLA and SCS. If my memory is correct, the first SCMS comics panel didn’t occur until the one that you were on in London. That was in the early-2000s.

In the late-1990s the MLA routinely rejected proposals for comics panels out of hand. Today, both of those organizations, and others, have growing comics studies areas and interest groups. So much of that is because of the graphic novel as a gentrifying idea. No matter how problematic the term can be, it has allowed us to win a number of tactical battles and advance our cause. At this point I’m very much in favour of winning any tactical battles that we can.


Digital Dreamers: A Conversation between Jose Antonio Vargas and Henry Jenkins

Last week, I participated in a plenary conversation at the Digital Media and Learning 2016 conference at the University of California-Irvine. My thinking partner for this exchange was Jose Antonio Vargas, the founder and CEO of Define American, a non-profit media and culture organization that seeks to elevate the conversation around immigration and citizenship in America; the founder and editor of #EmergingUS, a digital platform that lives at the intersection of race, immigration, and identity in a multicultural America; and a filmmaker.

I was thrilled to have this chance to reconnect with Vargas. As we both note at the start of the conversation, we had developed a special relationship a decade or so ago, when he was starting as a reporter at the Washington Post and I was often consulted as a source for his stories about video games and about the role of new media in the 2008 presidential campaign. We lost touch with each other, so I was surprised, along with everyone else, when Vargas came out as undocumented in a cover story in Time magazine and have watched with close attention and distant admiration as he has emerged as a key figure in the debates around immigration reform in America over the past few years.

During this same time, I have moved to California and found myself more and more writing about issues of race/racism and social justice, after spending the first part of my career largely avoiding such topics. So, in this exchange, we both share something of our personal journeys and then talk about the role of media — old and new — in creating the context where today’s debates around immigration reform, Islamaphobia, and racialized police violence have been taking place, and we engage with the diverse audience of researchers, educators, and community leaders drawn to the MacArthur Foundation sponsored event. Since the conference organizers have made a video of the event available, I wanted to share it with my regular readers here.

If you would like to read more of my own recent writings about growing up as a white southerner and how this has impacted the way I think about race, see this piece about a family photograph and this one about the debate around the confederate flag.

Below is another video produced in association with the DML conference — in this case, Howard Rhinegold interviews Sangita Shresthova and Gabriel Peters-Lazario, my frequent collaborators, as they describe a workshop they ran focused on world-building and transmedia for social change.

GeekOut Interview: Transmedia Worldbuilding for Civic Engagement from Connected Learning Alliance on Vimeo.

If you have not already registered to attend our Oct. 21 conference, Transforming Hollywood 7: Diversifying Entertainment, please do so. Tickets are going fast, and we think this is going to be a really significant discussion about how we may produce a more inclusive culture both behind the camera and on screen. I will be sharing videos of the event here sometime down the line, but you will want to tell your grandchildren you were there when it happened. 🙂

Why Study Fan Archives?: An Interview with Gail DeKosnik (Part Three)

As we think about the challenges of developing a more diverse and inclusive media culture, you suggest that some archives do not simply collect existing works but are generative, actively shaping the culture that they collect, through various mechanisms. So, what role do you think fan archives have played in encouraging more cultural production by and about people of color?

Fan fiction archives are not merely repositories for works that already exist in the world; rather they are what Wolfgang Ernst calls “dynarchives” ­­ archives that change and expand with the proliferation of the cultural genres that the archives are built to store.

I go a step further than Ernst and argue that fan fiction archives are generative ­­ they incentivize fans to produce more of what is being archived ­­ and when archives host writing festivals, events, “ficathons,” and fic “exchanges” like Yuletide, they explicitly call upon a community to write more and more of a certain subgenre or category of fanfic.

In Chapter 4 of the book, I discuss a number of fan writing challenges, most of them staged by the group “dark_agenda,” that called upon fans to write stories about characters of color. These “archive events” seek to challenge the dominance of white characters in the larger Western Mediascape, the Western Media Archive as a whole (by which I mean the entirety of U.S.­ and European­produced audiovisual media texts, which all too frequently feature white leading characters, with non­white characters often supporting, propping up, or “pedestaling” them).

These writing challenges invite fans to reflect upon the ways that fandom, which is motivated by deep interior and individualized feelings, can be very heavily influenced and even structured by the biases and prejudices of the media industries. I view these challenges as challenging fans to try to link their politics (for example, a belief in racial equality) to their fannish practices, and to bring into being, if only in fan fiction, a mediascape that has more equal representation of races and ethnicities ­­ to help imagine and create the kind of mediascape that they think should exist in the world.

You were part of a generation of fan scholars who were, in many cases, introduced to the field through Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet. One shared trait among many of you was the application of performance theory approaches to thinking about fan cultural production. What do we learn if we think about fan productions as performances rather than or in addition to being read as texts?

Francesca Coppa’s great essay in Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet, which I teach at least once every year, is really the basis for much of my thinking around how performance studies and fan studies intersect. As I write in the book, I consider Coppa’s “Writing Bodies in Space” and Kurt Lancaster’s book Interacting with Babylon 5 to be the foundational texts of a line of scholarship that merges performance studies and fan studies.

Building on their work, I argue in Rogue Archives that fans’ desire to perform and re­perform, and differently perform, stories and characters that many people know and have in common, which is a fundamental drive in both theater making and fan fiction writing, has led to the rise of a different imperative in cultural preservation than any that existed before.

In other words, because digital culture makes constant re­performance possible to produce and share very widely, digital archiving has had to develop to account for that highly active performance culture. And digital archiving itself is not static, it evolves, and makes its own repertoires, and has had to alter and refine its own performance technique and its own technical levels of performance (as in “high ­performance”) as it has tried to preserve the explosion of creative output from Internet users.

If you attended a festival of plays where every play was being performed as many ways as different people could think to stage them, and where there was an infinite capacity for new stages to be built right away, and for new versions of each one of those plays to be staged, and if you tried to somehow preserve all of those, every iteration and variant of every play in that ever­ expanding festival ­­ that’s what Internet fan fiction archivists have been trying to do.

The prevailing logics of digital networked cultural production are quite different than those of print culture: digital culture is a performance culture, while print culture thought of itself as a text culture, a static culture, where works were “locked” into place and they were either “official” or “unofficial.” Everyone knows that it’s much easier to archive texts than performances. Well, now, digital archivists have to be in the business of archiving performances, not texts.

You dig back deep enough into fan history to describe the moment of transition towards digital fan culture and the resistances some fans had to moving away from a print­-based and face-­to-­face conception of fandom. What can we learn by understanding those resistances more fully? And how might we connect them to issues about digital equity and access more generally? What role did fandom have in overcoming the digital divide between male and female users and what might this suggest in terms of strategies for confronting other kinds of digital divides and participation gaps?

As you (Henry ­­ and also Cynthia Jenkins) told me in your interview for the book, fans who were active in real­world spaces, in face­to­face fan groups, meetings, and cons, at the time that the Internet was initially becoming a site of fandom, were quite attentive to issues of unequal access, to the “digital divide” between fans who had routine access to computers and the Internet (say, at their jobs) and fans who did not.

You and many others recalled that many fans whose fannish world had been defined wholly by print zines and in­ person interaction felt shut out, excluded, from this other world of fandom that arose in this virtual, online space. The temporalities of those fan worlds were dramatically different: fan conventions like Escapade took place once every year, new zine issues were published maybe twice a year or maybe monthly, but on the Internet, fan discussion took place daily.

So fans who had computer access printed out fan discussion threads and took those pages to meetings and passed them around, and they organized donations of computers to fans who couldn’t afford them, and there were cons at which some fans would set up a few computers in a room and demo Internet fan sites for fans who had never been online, and show them what participation in that world looked like.

Fans of that period, the early-­to-­mid­’90s, seemed to do a great job at outreach and onboarding, organizing tutoring events and equipment donations ­­ people who are working on issues of the digital divide and new literacies today can really learn a lot from that era of fan history.

At the same time, as I write in the book, there was a ton of strife between “print fans” and “net fans,” for many many reasons, because they experienced and defined and practiced fandom so differently (though, I note, many fans straddled both worlds and both identities).

In the past, researchers have thrown up their hands when asked how expansive fan archives really are given the difficulty of accurately counting these dispersed and partially underground collections. Yet you and your team have been using new tools and techniques to give us some more accurate data in response to this question. Can you give us a progress report on what you are finding?

I was fortunate enough to apply for, and receive, a $50,000 grant from the Hellman Fellows Fund, as well as some smaller grants from the Townsend Center for the Humanities and the UC Berkeley Senate Faculty Committee on Research which allowed me to fund a research team composed of myself, my colleague Prof. Laurent El Ghaoui (a statistician on Berkeley’s

Electrical Engineering and Computer Science faculty), computer science Ph.D. and undergraduate students, and Ph.D. and undergrad students from humanities disciplines as well. I called that team “Fan Data,” and we worked for more than a year to build data scrapers that could “count” Internet fan fiction archives. I wanted to ascertain how large fan fiction archives are in terms of number of stories, number of authors, number of reviewers, etc., and I wanted to graph their growth over time, and I wanted to quantify their rates of productivity ­­ how many new stories were uploaded to each archive per month.

We scraped and the Archive of Our Own, mostly, but also did some interesting analysis of a Usenet X ­Files fan fiction community, the Gossamer archive (the largest repository of X­Files fanfic and the largest single­fandom fic archive, to my knowledge), and several H arry Potter LiveJournal communities. All of our visualizations can be found in the Conclusion to R ogue Archives.

Unfortunately, those scrapers aren’t available to the public, and I’m not sure that they should be, as we don’t want loads of people running scrapers on active websites all the time. (Apologies to and AO3 if our team caused any of the archives we scraped any inconvenience or interruptions of service!!!!).

I would love to conceive of some way that maybe my team could one day launch a service that would periodically measure these archives, ideally with their administrators’ permission (we did get the Gossamer archivists’ permission), and release that data to the public on a website. Perhaps we could ask scholars to pay us a nominal fee for conducting similar scrapes and creating visualizations of other websites with vast amounts of user­generated content.

Those are dreams I have for the future, but given that I can only pay researchers to work on such projects with grant monies, and grant applications take incredible amounts of time and don’t always (or often) meet with success, I have to weigh the costs and benefits of furthering my data science/digital humanities (DS/DH) research against doing more traditional scholarship (i.e., reading books and journal articles, studying cultural texts/objects/performances, perhaps conducting interviews and transcribing them, and writing essays or chapters). Because grant applications for DS/DH take SO much time, I do a lot more traditional humanities scholarship than DS/DH scholarship.

That said, I am committed to advancing DS/DH. I will be publishing another DS/DH article soon, in which I share the results of using a topic modeling tool on Twitter, for the controversial hashtag #CancelColbert. I like to work with graduate students interested in DS/DH methods, and a colleague of mine, Prof. Keith Feldman in Berkeley’s Ethnic Studies department, and I are collaborating with a number of grad students in our working group, The Color of New Media (which focuses on scholarship at the intersection of critical race studies, gender and women’s studies, transnational studies, and new media studies), on a book project called # identity: Hashtagging Race, Gender, Sex, and Nation, which will feature DS/DH research in some capacity ­­ potentially on a dedicated website that accompanies the publication of a print book.

I also got some teaching grants to support a seminar that I’m leading this fall, called “Making Sense of Cultural Data,” that brings together what I call “Data Science Professionals” or “DS Pros” and undergraduate and graduate students, to help students conduct their own original research projects, both individual and group projects, using leading­edge data science tools.

My goal with that course is to envision a new kind of curriculum that invites technical and non­technical faculty and students to collaborate and teach one another and learn from one another.

I think that the worlds of data science (text analytics including topic modeling, network analysis, geospatial mapping, new forms of image search, etc.) and the worlds of the arts, design, and humanities really need to come much closer together. We can’t have data science only ask and answer questions that matter to corporations and government bodies ­­ it has to ask and answer humanistic, social scientific, artistic, and design questions, too. And we can’t have arts/humanities/social science/design scholars ignore the potentials of data science; we have to get these scholars to embrace and love what data tools and computational approaches can offer them.

At least some students need to have a foot in both worlds, going forward, so that the “two cultures,” as C.P. Snow would say, can speak to one another and conduct new, original, and important research.

Abigail De Kosnik is an Associate Professor at the University of California, Berkeley, in the Berkeley Center for New Media (BCNM, and the Department of Theater, Dance & Performance Studies (TDPS,  She is the author of Rogue Archives: Digital Cultural Memory and Media Fandom (MIT Press, 2016).  She has published articles on media fandom, popular digital culture, and performance studies in Cinema Journal, The International Journal of Communication, Modern Drama, Transformative Works and Cultures and elsewhere.  She is the co-editor, with Sam Ford and C. Lee Harrington, of the edited essay collection The Survival of Soap Opera: Transformations for a New Media Era (University Press of Mississippi, 2011).

Why Study Fan Archives?: An Interview with Abigail De Kosnik (Part Two)

Given the sheer volume of fan works produced, it is perhaps not realistic to imagine every text will be saved, so what are some of the ways the community has sought to determine which texts are worth preserving for future generations? Is what you call “the selective tradition” an inevitable development given the sheer expansion of cultural production or are there alternative ways of thinking about the value of assembling and preserving cultural works?

Actually the way that data storage is developing, more and more storage is becoming available at lower and lower prices. As long as digital networked preservation is a going concern, I think that fan archives can actually be comprehensive ­­ I think that potentially everything that takes the form of digital data can be saved! At least from a technical perspective.

What I emphasize in the book is that actually, labor is a far scarcer resource than technology. So, while it will be technically feasible to preserve many fandoms’ output in their entirety, what if there comes a day when people cease to care about saving digital cultural production? I think that it’s possible that even now, many people believe (falsely) that everything they do online is preserved somewhere, by the companies that run the social media platforms on which they participate, and don’t really sense a need to do anything to save their posts or their fan works, or others’ fan works.

But only fan labor has made possible the multi­fandom archive Archive of Our Own (AO3) and the great single ­fandom archives that preceded it, such as Gossamer and Trekiverse. These archives are all non­profit fan­ owned and fan­ operated sites. is for­ profit and definitely does not operate as an archive ­­ it has freely deleted fan works several times in its history. Tumblr is not an archive for fan works. YouTube is not an archive for fan works. For ­profit corporate­ owned sites have no commitment to the long­  term preservation of fans’ cultural productions.

Only when fans own their own servers, as the famous AO3 rallying cry goes ­­ and only as long as fans are willing to do the work of building and maintaining the archives that live on those servers, and interfacing with their users and with the press, and putting redundancy measures in place, and making policy decisions and recruiting fellow volunteers and all of the other responsibilities involved with running an archive ­­ will fan archives exist.

So while I don’t think that fan fiction is too large a genre to completely archive, I do fear that at some point, the preponderance of corporate ­owned social media may lull fans into thinking that they don’t have to appoint themselves archivists of their communities’ material. If fans stop volunteering to fulfill this important cultural role, then fan works will cease to be archived in a reliable way.


You’ve written much here and elsewhere about issues of fan labor. Who does the work of producing and maintaining these archives? What kinds of rewards do they receive for their efforts? What are alternative ways of thinking about how to compensate for this labor?

In my interviews with fan archivists, I was struck by how passionately they felt about digital preservation of fan works, how important they thought it was, how deeply they thought about how the structure and functions of their archives. All of the fan archivists that I spoke to had strong technical skills ­­ that’s one reason that I call them “techno­volunteers,” they volunteer because they have an intuitive sense for how technology could be used to make enduring cultural archives, if only a volunteer stepped in to make that happen ­­ but not all, or even many, of them were professional programmers.

The reward of archiving, it seems, is largely the endurance of the archive itself, because what all archivists talked about was how appalled they have been at seeing fan works, or even large fan archives, disappear. Another reward that many interviewees spoke of was the relationships they got to build because of their archival activities, and also what archiving had taught them about the diversity of fandom.

As for compensation, well, almost every archivist said that their fan archives cost them money, because they have to pay for server space or simply because they have to pour time and effort into these non­income-­generating projects. But the compensation that I would like to see for fan archivists is simply greater recognition. I wish that fans valorized their archivists the way they valorize their favorite fan artists and authors and vidders.

Techno­volunteers tend to be invisible because many users assume that online archives are automated to the point that nobody in particular needs to actually own and operate the archives, and make regular decisions and oversee them and steer and guide and maintain them, and that simply isn’t the case. Even a highly automated archive has at least one person, and usually more, working hard behind ­the­ scenes, at the “back end.”

In other words, I argue that digital archive users tend to confuse the “servers” (the people who volunteer to serve them by building them working archives) and “servers” (the hardware that serves up fan works on demand). Fan archivists are humans, not machines. They deserve as much respect and admiration as prominent fan creators.

Can you say something about your own archiving practices in relation to the production of this book ­­ for example, you’ve conducted a large number of oral histories that are potential resources for constructing the history of fandom as a community quite apart from your specific uses of this material. What do you see as your obligations as a researcher in terms of the material you have collected?

I’m very happy to report that we donated both the audio files and the transcripts of all of our interviews ­­ under the title “Fan Fiction and Internet Memory,” which was the official title of our oral history project ­­ to the University of Iowa Libraries, because those Libraries have a special collection of “Fandom­Related Collections”: (When I say “our” oral history project, I want to credit my fellow interviewers, Andrea Horbinski and Lisa Cronin, as well as Adam Hutz, Kelsey Wong, and all of our transcribers ­­ all of my team members were UC Berkeley graduate or undergraduate students at the time we conducted the interviews and got them transcribed.) While our interview archive hasn’t yet been ingested, I hope to see it listed on that page soon! And eventually, I would love to work with U. of Iowa to get our transcripts available online for other researchers to use.

Abigail De Kosnik is an Associate Professor at the University of California, Berkeley, in the Berkeley Center for New Media (BCNM, and the Department of Theater, Dance & Performance Studies (TDPS,  She is the author of Rogue Archives: Digital Cultural Memory and Media Fandom (MIT Press, 2016).  She has published articles on media fandom, popular digital culture, and performance studies in Cinema Journal, The International Journal of Communication, Modern Drama, Transformative Works and Cultures and elsewhere.  She is the co-editor, with Sam Ford and C. Lee Harrington, of the edited essay collection The Survival of Soap Opera: Transformations for a New Media Era (University Press of Mississippi, 2011).

Why Study Fan Archives: An Interview with Abigail De Kosnik (Part One)


Karen Hellekson and Kristina Busse’s Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Internet Age introduced a new generation of fan scholars and their work: as a cohort, these women were deeply embedded in the fan communities about which they wrote (“aca-fans”), they had come of age with digital media, they combined ethnographic and textual modes of analysis, they were as interested in how fan fiction was produced as they were in why it was produced, and they introduced a range of new theoretical paradigms.

Abigail De Kosnik wrote one of the essays from that collection that I return to most often in my own writing and teaching, and I’ve been lucky enough to get to know her as a friend and thinking partner in the years since the book appeared.

While other fans (academic and otherwise) had suggested connections between fan fiction and various literary texts that appropriate and remix characters from existing works, De Kosnik’s “Archontic Literature” framing was the first to systematically explore those connections, linking the study of fandom to larger conversations about how writers relate to cultural and historical archives, a topic she returns to in her current book to stunning effect. While other writers have explored a range of fannish practices, including, most influentially, fan fiction writing, fan video practices, and now, in recent years, fan activism, Rogue Archives: Digital Cultural Memory and Media Fandom, which MIT Press published this week,  focuses on fan archiving practices as central to the evolution of digital cultural practices more generally.

Here, she combines oral history, recovering some key chapters in the evolution of online fandom, with a rich theoretical exploration, one that is particularly drawn to metaphors from performance studies.  I can only describe Rogue Archives as a tour de force. The book dramatically expands the range of theoretical texts and traditions that fandom studies might draw on for contextualizing the production, circulation, archiving, and consumption of fan fiction; De Kosnik makes understanding fandom’s labor in preserving its cultural memory central to many core debates about digital culture.

She writes here, among other things, about the archive and the repertoire, the instability and ephemerality of digital memory, ongoing debates about canons and alternative ways of constructing cultural traditions, the performative and bodily dimensions of fan fiction, different kinds of fan performances, debates about free and immaterial labor, fandom’s transition from print-based to digital practices, alternative temporalities of media consumption, and notions of authorship in fandom. She yokes these various strands  via the two different meanings of archive she proposes – in terms of the material practices through which fan fiction is preserved and rendered accessible to a larger group of readers and the archive as the set of previous texts which readers and writers draw upon in processing new stories. This is going to be a very important book, not simply for fandom studies, but across a range of other disciplines that she draws reconceptualizes in the pursuit of her project.

What follows is the first of three installments of an interview with De Kosnik about the book and its contributions to our understanding of fandom, archives, digital culture, and popular memory.

Through the years, fandom studies has investigated a wide range of fan practices ­­ fan fiction, fan vidding, Wizard Rock, Cosplay, Memes, etc. but there has been relatively little focus on fan archiving practices, which to some may seem like a largely technical issue. So, why study fan archives? What do these practices tell us about fandom? What might the study of fan archiving practices contribute to information science more generally? In what ways are fan archives illustrative of other memory practices within digital culture?

Fan fiction archives were among the first high ­volume, high­ traffic Internet archives to be built. Plenty of people were using the nascent Internet and World Wide Web (in the early ’90s) to construct enormous archives of information that were free and open online, but fan fiction archives were, as far as I can te ll, the most active of these early digital archives ­­ because fan fiction was being written and uploaded (or sent in to archive administrators) at a fast and furious rate.

Fan fiction archives can teach information science about what it means to try to preserve culture in the moment of its unfolding, cultural forms at their peak production levels. Information science understands a lot about preserving cultural objects that are old, that have taken on great significance in the time since their release, but preserving digital culture means archiving texts, images, video, and motion graphics a s they are circulating, when they’re the most relevant, not when they are already relegated to “the past.”

Fan fiction archives led the way in the effort to try to effectively store, and make available, digital cultural works as they were being generated. What archivists of both physical and digital objects share is a need to keep and maintain those objects because they are important, and they are in constant threat of being lost. And digital objects are even more prone to sudden disappearance than physical ones ­­ a hosting company can decide not to host your fan fiction works anymore, or an archivist can “flounce” from their archive and simply shut it down, or a social media platform can opt to delete fanfic stories without notifying anyone, or servers can simply crash.

Fan fiction archivists got into the digital preservation game so early that they definitely encountered all of these dangers and more, and have collectively created many defenses against digital loss and disappearance that all archivists can and should learn from.

You open the book with a compelling statement, “memory has gone rogue.” In what sense are the practices you describe throughout the book “rogue”? For example, the recent Paramount/CBS Guidelines for Star Trek fan films have specific stipulations about how fan films can be stored and transmitted (streaming but not in a material format such as video or dvd). What’s at stake in this effort by the studio to dictate fan archiving practices?

I argue that cultural memory has “gone rogue” because so many digital cultural preservation projects are run, not by large state­sponsored museums, libraries, and archives and trained Library and Information Science professionals, but by amateurs, hackers, volunteers, pirates, and fans.

People who have no formal training or professional experience as archivists, but who have some understanding of how networked technology can be used to store digital works and keep them available over long periods of time and are passionate about actualizing this potential, have taken it upon themselves to design, build, and maintain online repositories.

I’m thinking of people like Brewster Kahle, who founded the massive Internet Archive, anonymous pirates who have created some of the most robust, most accessible film libraries in the world (though they are illicit), and media fans, who have sought to preserve their own communities’ vast amounts of cultural production. People like these are leading the fight to preserve culture digitally; their discoveries and best practices are paving the way for future online archival efforts.

Unfortunately, the very media corporations that have the most to gain from digital media being archived and made widely available to future generations (for example: Paramount depends on the Star Trek fandom continuing on forever, which means that it depends on fans being able to access as many Trek texts as possible, both official and fan­made) seem to often be hostile to preservation projects and do not seem to prioritize long­term storage and circulation at all (as in the example that you gave).

Towards the end of my book, I discuss the fact that fans have basically “taken license” with media texts for a long time ­­ in other words, fans aren’t waiting, and never were waiting, for corporations to finally see the wisdom in appending Creative Commons licenses to their products so that finally fans could be “authorized” to transform with attribution and circulate noncommercially. Rather, fans have simply taken whatever license they wished with media products ­­ they’ve remixed them however they’ve wanted, shared them as widely as they wanted to, safeguarded them however they’ve deemed necessary.

Fan creativity only promotes media commodities and keeps interest in them alive, so far from fan archivists doing any harm to media companies by flouting their rules regarding fan works, I think that these volunteer archivists are working hard for the benefit and profit of these companies by inventing effective archival techniques for their fellow fans’ output.

Fan fiction has often been described as transient, disposable, and perhaps most damningly, only of interest within a particular social circle of friends. Even many fans would argue that most of what gets produced is not especially good by traditional standards. So why should we care whether the archive of previous fan works is preserved or not?

I think that it’s likely that every reader of fan fiction has very strong opinions about what makes a fan fiction story “good” or “bad.” But in my view, one of the greatest ethical lessons to be learned from participating in fandom is that one can’t judge the quality of fan works for others. What strikes one reader as a terrible, trope ­ridden, immature fan story may strike another as just the kind of story that they want to read at a given moment in time. Even a story that is full of misspellings and bad grammar can offer a compelling version of characters and their dynamics, or a fascinating plot line, or really lively dialogue.

And I don’t mean to suggest that plot lines have to be fascinating, or dialogue has to be lively ­­ actually, I very much enjoy fanfics that work like mood pieces, or tone poems, in which very little happens and very little is said, and we just get some insight into a character’s state of mind.

In other words, fan fiction archives specifically work to offer fans the greatest possible multiplicity of approaches to, and versions of, media universes, so that every fan may choose which fan stories “work” for them (and different types of stories may “work” at very different points in a fan’s life). Fan fiction archives promote this ethos of acceptance that there is tremendous diversity in cultural tastes and preferences.

Fan fiction archives’ mission is to preserve all fan works for all fans, not to judge which are “worth” saving and which are not worthy. Fan critics can debate which fan works, in any given universe, are the “best,” but fan archivists strive to preserve all of the works, as much as they can ­­ because they value their fandoms as important and significant living cultural communities, and they feel that every corner of their cultures is worth safeguarding.

Abigail De Kosnik is an Associate Professor at the University of California, Berkeley, in the Berkeley Center for New Media and the Department of Theater, Dance & Performance Studies.  She is the author of Rogue Archives: Digital Cultural Memory and Media Fandom (MIT Press, 2016).  She has published articles on media fandom, popular digital culture, and performance studies in Cinema Journal, The International Journal of Communication, Modern Drama, Transformative Works and Cultures and elsewhere.  She is the co-editor, with Sam Ford and C. Lee Harrington, of the edited essay collection The Survival of Soap Opera: Transformations for a New Media Era (University Press of Mississippi, 2011).