My Favorite Things: Bryan Talbot, Graphic Novel Man

I’ve learned through the years that you should be cautious about meeting people you admire -- great artists whose work speaks to you on a profound level rarely live up to the persona you’ve constructed for them in your mind’s eye. There’s bound to be some kind of disappointment or disillusionment. So, I did not know what to expect when I took a long train trip out to Sunderland a few summers ago to meet Bryan Talbot, the remarkable comics artist and storyteller, who has been credited with producing some of the first graphic novels to emerge from the British comics scene. Thanks to a mutual friend, Billy Proctor, I had been invited to visit Talbot and his wife, Mary, a feminist linguist and cultural theorist, in their home, mostly to make contact, since I had plans (still do, alas) to write an essay about Alice in Sunderland as part of a larger project on comics and material culture. As it happens, the day I arrived was also a day when documentary filmmaker Russell Wall was shooting a segment for a feature length film, The Graphic Novel Man, he was coproducing with James Guy. If there’s a risk of meeting your heroes, there’s also some of the same risk attached to seeing their lives and world depicted through a documentary. In this case, though, there is no disappointment.

I have had several other chances to interact with Talbot over the past few years, and each encounter has been more enchanting than the last. The Graphic Novel Man, which was released this summer, similarly, brings a smile to my face because it captures some much of what makes Talbot a wonderful, charming man and a risk-taking artist who is continuing to push himself and his medium to the breaking point.

My goal today is to offer an appreciation of The Graphic Novel Man, which you can purchase and download at Vimeo and should. But it can not also escape being an appreciation of Talbot’s contributions to the art of graphic storytelling.

Early on, Dez Skinn characterizes Talbot as the “David Bowie of comics,” describing his shape-shifting capacity: Talbot adjusts his style to the demands of different kinds of stories and has worked across the full spectrum of British comics -- from early work in the underground comics through commercial work on The Sandman or Batman through to his more mature works, the Luther Arkwright saga, A Tale of One Bad Rat, Alice in Sunderland, the Grandville series, and A Dotter in Her Father’s Eyes. Taking Talbot's virtuosity as a starting point, The Graphic Novel Man surveys his work, offering expert commentary from his contemporaries, and from time to time, giving us a chance to really focus on the complex choices he makes in the construction of any given page.

This is where Graphic Novel Man shines: It comes from a rich tradition of work by British documentarians on the visual arts, in which the viewer is assumed to be at once curious and intelligent, capable of learning to see the world through the eyes of the particular artist, and willing to pay attention to technique. So, across the film, we learn about how Talbot took influences from 1960s cinema, especially the work of Sam Peckinpah and Nicholas Roeg, in order to restructure our experience of time and focus our attention on the ethics and politics of violence. Or Neil Gaiman shows us what Talbot brought to their collaboration on Sandman, stressing Talbot's extensive research into the classical world, and the ways that this expertise influenced his use of light and shadow across a particular compelling segment.

Or we learn about the ways Talbot taps into the British “funny animal” tradition to inform the design of characters for his Grandville series and the ways that these books incorporate both broad puns and subtle visual jokes. Accompanying shorts take us into Talbot’s studio, where we get to watch him develop a page for Grandville and describe the choices he makes in its design. I've stood in that actual studio and seen other yet to be finished pages on his drawing board.

We learn about Talbot's work from a broad array of his contemporaries including an introduction by science fiction writer Michael Moorcock and commentary by Neil Gaiman, Joe Sacco, Warren Ellis, Gilbert Shelton, Ian Rankin, Kim Newman, David Lloyd, Pat Mills, John Wagner, Charlie Adlard, Carlos Ezquerra, D’Israeli, Doug Braithwaite, Andy Diggle, Simon Fraser, Al Davison, Mary Talbot, Hunt Emerson, Paul Gravett, Mark Stafford, Dr. Mel Gibson, Lee Harris, Dan Charnley and yours truly.

A key theme running across the film is Talbot’s relationship to British culture -- whether the stories and landscapes associated with Beatrice Potter that inform One Bad Rat or his life-long fascination with Victoriana, which led him to be a key influence on the emergence of Steampunk in the visual arts.

This focus on British history and culture is central to Alice in Sunderland, the work of his which spoke to me the most.

Reading Alice in Sunderland is an overwhelming experience -- not simply because of its epic scale whether judged by its 300 plus page length or through its historical scope, which traces the history of a town in Northwest England from the Age of Reptiles and the era of St. Bede through to the present moment and shows how it has functioned as a crossroads for many of the cultural currents which have shaped British history. But, even on the level of the single page, Sunderland is overwhelming because of the way that Talbot has built it up primarily through techniques borrowed from photocomics and especially through the use of collage. Each page may feature dozens of images Talbot has collected from archives -- old photographs, documents, woodcuts, carved marble, stained-glass windows, film stills, cartoons, and printed books, all jockeying for our attention, each conveying separate bits of information relevant to the historical narrative he is developing, but each gaining far greater meaning when situated within the book’s gestalt.

Talbot insists that he is a storyteller, not a historian, yet one can not help but be impressed by the vast amount of archival research informing this book, and Alice is significant as much on the level of its historiographical construction as it is on the level of its formal execution. At the center of this narrative, as its title might suggest, is the story of Lewis Carroll, the author of Alice in Wonderland, who lived for a time in Sunderland and met Alice Liddell, his young muse, for whom his fairy story was dedicated. On the surface, the book can be read as an obsessive argument for the priority of Sunderland over Oxford as the site from which to understand the origins of Carroll’s Wonderland, yet in the process of making such claims, Talbot goes further, linking Alice and Carroll to a much broader array of stories (from ancient mythology to music hall comedy) which have sprung from the same geographic and cultural roots.

Sunderland, thus, is a project in radical intertextuality, forging links between dispersed narratives drawn from both history and fiction, mapping them onto a highly localized geography. For all of its historical expansiveness, the core structure of the book is a tour, walking up and down the streets of Sunderland, as Talbot points out various monuments and landmarks, linking them into the emerging narrative of British history. And on yet another meta-level, Talbot is trying to connect his own medium, comics, to a much broader history of artistic practices which combined words and pictures to construct narratives, including a consideration of Carroll’s relations with his illustrator John Tenniel, the Bayeux Tapestry, William Blake, and William Hogarth, as well as patches of many different comics genres.

Sunderland can best be described as a hypertext in printed form, and as such, it becomes often incomprehensible, impossible to grasp fully in a single or even multiple readings, and it is the immensity of its vision, more than anything else, which we carry away from us. The hypertext analogy is no accident since Talbot himself translated one of his earlier graphic novels, Heart of Empire, into a CD-ROM so that he could layer upon the page annotations which traced its intertextual roots. Like a conspiracy theory, everything is connected, yet for this very reason, it is impossible to fully exhaust the layers of allusions that shape this work. Such layers are only fully achievable in a graphic medium where, in this case, each picture speaks a thousand words. Unlike a conspiracy theorist, Talbot actively encourages our skepticism, encouraging us to question every statement, and at places, the artist seems to have a crisis of faith in his own project.

There’s a delightful segment in Graphic Novel Man describing how Talbot's search for the ideal Victorian factory to use for a scene in one of the Grandville graphic novels led him around the world wide web and back again to a neighboring village. As this segment suggests, Talbot is a world-builder, someone who thinks through every element he puts on his page, and can speak about its larger implications for the society he is depicting. Yet, often, as he does so, he is drawing implicitly and often explicitly on references to the material world, places he has been, buildings he has entered, things that he owns, all of which give his drawings much of their particularity.

When I was interviewing Talbot, in the midst of a room whose walls are covered by all kinds of carved masks from around the world, he told me he was not "a collector" -- simply "an accumulator" -- and he pointed at one point to a cabinet of curiosity which figures in Alice, full of various pop culture icons and artifacts he had gathered through the years. Many of his books have the appeal of a cabinet of curiosities but the worlds are more systematically developed than this focus on random encounters might suggest. There is both rhyme and reason to the details he includes, and this film gives us a sense of what guides his pen.

The film ends with a focus on Dotter in Her Father’s Eyes, itself a remarkable collaboration. Bryan challenged Mary to write her own graphic novel, using as its starting point her troubled relationship with her father, a noted Joyce scholar; Dotter extends outward to incorporate a second narrative -- that of Joyce’s equally problematic relationship with his own daughter, Lucia. The words come from Mary, the images from Bryan, but working together pushed the artist to develop yet another visual style, one softer, more intimate, than any we have seen before. There are few examples in graphic storytelling of husband and wife collaborations on this level -- the complex conversation in Dirty Laundry between R. Crumb and Aline Kominsky-Crumb comes to mind. There’s a similar fascination here in watching husband and wife work through this story together, sometimes correcting each other’s memories. Bryan appears throughout the book as a character, not always a totally sympathetic one.

Graphic Novel Man, by contrast, is very much Bryan Talbot’s story, a great tribute to a artist who has always refused to rest on his laurels, who rejected the easy path towards commercial success. Mary descibes her husband's routine of doing a page a day, no matter what, yet also tells us that he sometimes finds himself so engaged with adding extra details that he fails to meet those goals, too much a craftsman for his own good. Graphic Novel Man is attentive to the work that came on Bryan’s slower days, when he broke with his own production regime, in order to spend as much time as he needed to fully realize a particularly detailed page, because his sense of professionalism, his artistic vision, demanded it. Such pages are pure gifts to the reader and often represent moments of virtuosity for the artist.

If you love comics, you owe it to yourself to discover Talbot’s work, and one of the best ways to do so is to watch Graphic Novel Man.

Rethinking the "Value" of Entertainment Franchises: An Interview with Derek Johnson (Part Three)

In many ways, children’s television (and media more generally) has been the testing ground for franchising strategies. What is it about this genre/market which lends itself to this mode of production? How have children’s franchises represented the merger of logics from multiple industries?

I argue in the book that, in some ways, the franchising model is an extrapolation of the episodicity of television, where one episode is meant to lead viewers into the next.  In franchising, this just functions across multiple markets and media.  In children’s television specifically, this structure has combined with marketers’ desires to use one media to drive kids’ interest in consumer experiences in another.  That is, of course, how US commercial television approaches all its audiences more broadly.  But television for children has been regulated differently; our concerns about children as a special, protected audience has led to increased activism in an attempt to protect children from this kind of coordinated commercialism.

I don’t really make this claim so explicitly in the book, but it strikes me now that these regulatory attempts at protection may have helped feed the very franchising strategies that anti-commercialism activists would (and did) decry.  When you had Action for Children’s Television pushing for tighter restrictions on how toy companies could advertise their products on television, and succeeding in getting “program length commercials” like Hot Wheels pulled from the air, companies like Hasbro adapted.  While they couldn’t produce television based directly on their toys, they saw no regulation against advertising comics, so they created a partnership with Marvel Comics to create a GI JOE title that could tie-in with a television program.  They now had not just a TV show, but also a comic, both which would help create visibility for the TV.

Of course this only created a model for Transformers and other TV-comic-toy partnerships to follow, and it was really the deregulatory atmosphere (and not attempts at greater protection of kids) that weakened the rules and set off the wave of franchising to follow (where the comics intermediary wasn’t so necessary).  And at the same time as we try to protect kids from commercialism, it’s also common to assume kids don’t have well developed sense of taste—so alongside the impulse to protect them, we could shrug and ignore moves toward commercialization as indicative of the poor taste of kids.  But in either case, we tend to look at kids as special or essentially different, and I think that franchising strategies developed in these sectors in specific relationship to that cultural belief.

Other important factors here, thinking more long term, have to do more with nostalgia. Transformers may have been highly franchised back in its original 1980s incarnation too, but its persistence as a franchise today is tied very heavily to Hasbro’s “transgenerational marketing” strategies whereby adults are encouraged to share their childhood culture with their own children.  (Marvel has just started a similar “Share Your Universe” campaign meant to transfer parent tastes to a new generation of comic readers).  In the long term, focusing on childhood culture now creates the possibility for new iterations in a generation’s time when your original audience procreates.  The reproduction of franchising is in that sense tied to the reproduction of people.

I should also mention, in terms of creativity, that because we tend to delegitimize the tastes of kids, those working in children’s media sectors aren’t often accorded the greatest status and capital within the industry.  Regardless of what you think about it’s commercial motivations, the franchising of kids’ media led to a lot of experimentation with how you could tell an ongoing, collaborative story, and the familiarization of children with more serialized production strategies in the 1980s must have certainly helped create a literacy for the (far more critically endorsed) serial storytelling we see in some parts of “adult” TV today.  There were a lot of people working in children’s TV who still considered themselves creative and innovative despite wider industrial and popular perceptions, and from an insistence of that may have come a lot of new ideas about how to reach kids—both in a marketing and narrative sense.

I’m trying to zero in on this question of childhood in my current research, so I find this connection to be worth exploring with more care than I have here.  But I think there’s definitely an important relationship for us to see there.

Some have seen the franchising system as one more device which American cultural industries use to exert their dominance over the global media imagination, yet you stress the ways that they operate within a transnational context. How might we understand what others have discussed as the transnational exchange of television formats as part of a logic of franchising? What role does localization play within the franchising process?

I’m not sure I want to suggest that franchises are not in fact such a device, but it is more complicated than that critique usually allows.  Television formats, as I mentioned earlier, allow television to travel in localized ways, where instead of the US sending completed episodes of Friends to every nation on earth, the idea for shows like Big Brother are traded amongst different television markets to be remade and localized to suit specific cultures.

One of the most interesting things about the format market is that the dominance of the US is far less clear, with companies like Endemol from the Netherlands having become big players in the market for localizable concepts.  Of course, that doesn’t mean the old import/export market is dead—NBC’s The Office was formatted from the BBC version, as were series in many other nations, yet in international television sales, the American version is still able to find a global market, playing alongside the other localized versions that do not travel as freely (including the British original).  Formatting allows us to have Law & Order in many different incarnations travel through the global market, but also to develop localized offerings like Law & Order: UK.

But while American power persists amid formatting and in other kinds of franchising more broadly, I think that the processes by which formatted local uses are incorporated into the system challenges our ability to talk about franchising in terms of purely national origins.  In the television format, the innovations introduced locally can often become a part of the overall formula to be fed back into all the other contexts in which it is used.

In that sense, the formats sold by Endemol are not specifically of “Dutch” origin, but over time become the product of a transnational exchange of culture.  This is what I see in the global exchange of properties like Transformers that operate at a level beyond the single television format.  Given the complex history of exchange and shared innovation of a concept between toy companies and television producers in Japan, the US, and elsewhere, it feels over-simplistic to say that Transformers is either a Japanese or an American property.  I think we understand that franchise much more effectively if we see it as the product of these more complex relations and exchanges between transnational industries. And that might help us better understand globalization more generally.

I was struck by your use of the term, “enfranchisement,” in your closing chapters to describe consumer relations to media properties and your insistence on a more “ambivalent” account of what it means to be a fan of some of these series.  You write, “In the end, we have to ask not just how end users might occupy the spaces of cultural production once controlled by media industry, but also how those media industries might occupy the spaces of play and creative labor in which users participate.” What do you see as a way forward for cultural theory in response to these contradictions and ambivalences? Is it possible for us to acknowledge the grounds gained and lost through these negotiations without coming across as wishy-washy and indecisive?

I suppose that the way forward I hoped to find in that passage was one where were could recognize the agency of consumers and their participation in cultural production while at the same time recognizing how that pleasurable, playful participation can function as a part of industrial economies. I’m taking cues there from a number of inspirations, from your own work to that of Marc Andrejevic.  What I hoped to accomplish on a theoretical level with this idea of enfranchisement, however, was not just to recognize the role of consumers’ playful, pleasurable participation in industry, but to start thinking by implication about the work of professionals too as a form of collaborative participation both playful and uneasy (where the ideas about design and world-sharing can often turn us).

In the shift to thinking about “participatory culture” that your own work helped inspire, the focus of participation often remains on the audience.  By considering the identities and subjective uses of media by audiences in relation to industrial production, I think that my hope was that we could equally conceptualize the work of professionals and amateurs as “participatory,” as a way of using the media with pleasures and forms of engagement tied to their identities and communities as participators as well as the institutions that give them license to engage in these practices (extending of course the important work that John Caldwell, Vicki Mayer, and so many others have already done to connect production, labor, and identity).  One way forward for cultural theory, therefore, might be to continue to deconstruct hierarchies of production and consumption (as much as I feel continued, focused attention on production is a significant priority) and to focus on how creativity and participation more broadly turn on relations of power that manifest through identity, meaning, labor and other vectors of cultural struggle.

I don’t think that risks wishy-washiness or indecision, so much as it is asking for a paradigm shift, where we stop thinking about industry work cultures and amateur participation as all that different, and instead look at both production and consumption together as sites where identities and meanings form in relation to the participation structured by relations and institutions of power.  Instead of juxtaposing industry and audience or production and consumption, we might think about them more in terms of their commonalities.

How do you see Amazon's new Kindle Worlds program in relation to the contradictions about audience “enfranchisement” that you describe in your closing chapter? It is not, strictly speaking, “free labor,” since fan authors are paid royalties based on their contributions, yet it also represents potentially an extension of corporate control over audience fantasies since writers need to work within prescribed rules and boundaries and be granted authorization before they can contribute their stories to this program. Does this make fans part of the “world-sharing” process you describe here?

 Exactly—it’s not free labor, but it is enfranchised labor, where the participation and labor of these users comes under the terms of the contract of the Terms of Service of End-User License Agreement to which one must consent to participate.  Fans would absolutely become implicated in the world-sharing process with which I am concerned.  Much like any licensee, these fans would, as sanctioned contributors to the franchise, become subject to the same kind of stringent approvals and conditions described by MJ Clarke in his book Transmedia Television.  That might seem counterintuitive given that we probably imagine Amazon playing a pretty heavy intermediary role between fans and rightsholders—but Clarke reminds us how rare it is for professional licensed creators to communicate directly with license holders either.

The collaboration behind this kind of licensed enfranchisement is not based in significant communication, so much as taking up a prescribed role within a shared economy of creation.  Given the restrictions that the Content Worlds contributors will face, I would expect participants to adopt many of the same world-sharing strategies that any professional licensed creator would.  Expect plenty of continuity-mining.  Again, I think this helps us to try to think around some of our binaries between production and consumption, or professional and and amateur, in that we can think about similar subject positions, identifications, and negotiations of creativity, participation, and convergence operating across both sets of terms.

 

You end the book with this provocative sentence, "it is at the point where collaboration stops, however, that new alternatives might emerge." Do you have any sense of what those "new alternatives" might look like? Is cultural production possible without collaboration - in the multiple senses you are using the word here?

 

My intention in talking about collaboration in that chapter was to consider it both in the creative sense of shared effort, and in the political sense of complicity with an occupying regime.  In that final sentence imagining an end to collaboration, I may have been leaning slightly more toward that latter sense of the term, given that collective participation may be not just political advantageous, but also, as your question and much of the book itself suggests, inherent to cultural production more generally (even something as seemly authority-driven and corporately-controlled as media franchising).

You’re right that it is difficult to imagined cultural production without the social dimensions of exchanges and sharing we’re been discussing.  But what I think I was getting at speaks to the way in which I understand collaboration in relation to franchising more generally; I’m not insisting that these things are collaborative in the sense that franchise participants all get together and have open conversations about how to make a shared work—in fact, I think this is very much the opposite of what happens given the cultural and economic obstacles to that kind of cooperation.

Again, the collaboration that I see happening here is one where people who do the work of cultural production, professionals and amateurs alike, enter into a shared economy of creation by taking up one of many specific positions within an industrial set of relations.  The “end” of collaboration I’m talking about then is one in which those roles are perhaps not accepted so easily, and the terms of participating as a “user” or “sharer” of something like a franchise get renegotiated (both economically and in the sense of how we identify with and in relation to that cultural work).

I’m not sure that’s a very specific answer, but I’m imagining possibilities where we start to challenge the system that tells us who does and does not have the right to participate in culture in what prescribed ways.  If nothing else, this could be a refusal to abide the roles that EULAs and licensing contracts give us in making sense of our productive contributions to popular culture. The end of collaboration, in this sense, would be a form of cultural production where the users of culture are active in determining what their roles might be, where enfranchisement leads not just to agency participation in a set creative relations, but the reimagination of what those relations are.

Derek Johnson is Assistant Professor of Media and Cultural Studies at the University of Wisconsin - Madison.  He is the author of Media Franchising: Creative License and Collaboration in the Culture Industries (NYU Press, 2013), as well as the co-editor of A Companion to Media Authorship (Wiley-Blackwell, 2013) and Making Media Work: Cultures of Management in the Media Industries (NYU Press, forthcoming 2014).  His research focuses in the media industries, looking at how cultures of production negotiate creativity, convergence, and collaboration.  Most recently he has started working on a new single-authored book project focusing on children's media industries and the way in which producer identities cohere in relation to ideas about age, taste, and the child audience.  He has published several journal articles and chapters on the subject of Marvel Comics and their cross-media practices, and in his forthcoming publications, he has critiqued the industry strategies behind the HerUniverse web shop as well as the racial logics behind LEGO's licensed film and comic minifigures.

Rethinking the "Value" of Entertainment Franchises: An Interview with Derek Johnson (Part Two)

  What do you see as the limits of the concept of transmedia storytelling for accounting for the range of different production practices you discuss in the book?

 It’s often very appropriate to talk about franchising in terms of transmedia storytelling, but as I understood the concept in my reading of your work in Convergence Culture, I felt that transmedia storytelling represented a kind of aesthetically ideal case of franchising, where every element is designed to work together in a coordinated, coherent, integral way, without elements that seem unimportant to an overarching story.  Often, a way to do this is to ensure that your franchise is being guided by a strong authorial, editorial, or managerial vision.  I may be reading what you originally wrote a bit strictly, and I really love how you have since extended the concept to account for a greater range of multiplicity—where one-off interpretations and “what if?” spins on the franchise still make an integral contribution to the whole through their unique take on the formula.  I’m not always sure that creation under a centralized vision is the most interesting or ideal, so I think that acknowledging the pleasures of multiplicity and divergent interpretations really enhances our understanding of transmedia storytelling.

But where I think transmedia storytelling cannot fully account for the full range of franchising is in the inherent messiness of franchising and its push away from integrated forms of collaboration.  I think that all transmedia storytelling is a form of franchising, but not all franchising manages to count as transmedia storytelling.  The industrial relationships of franchising across boundaries of corporation, media form, and production community lead to a resistance to the kind of collaborative creativity transmedia storytelling implies.  For many in the industry who have embraced the idea of transmedia storytelling, I feel that franchising is the “bad” object they want to move away from.  I think franchising is very much with us still, and I’m interested in it a little more because I want to understand the persistent tensions and struggles and unevenness that the ideal of transmedia storytelling often seems to want to move away from.

 

I have often seen Marvel celebrated as an example of the successful and creative management of a franchise. What do you think Marvel has done that has won over fans, even as it has also been commercially successful? How do you see the new SHIELD television series fitting within the history of Marvel media production you trace within the book?

This speaks not just to the world of comics, but also the world of film, television, and video games that Marvel has colonized over the last fifteen years (where I see its success touted most often in a comparative sense against the failure of competitor DC in similarly trying to build franchises around its characters, Batman excepted).  Coming back again to the idea of authority, I think the way that Marvel has won over fans in this effort over the last five or six years in particular is based in some part in reaffirming the idea of centralized control and authorship against the multiple authorship of franchising (similar to the transmedia storytelling ideal vs. franchising bad object described above).

The Marvel case study in my book actually stops at the moment that Marvel starts to move away from licensing Hollywood studios to produce Marvel films, as has been the case in the 20th Century Fox X-Men and Sony Spider-Man series.  But in a parallel article in Cinema Journal, I explored this new moment where Marvel starts to self-finance and self-produce its own films, starting with Iron Man and of course leadings to last years’ The Avengers.  This involved a shift in the way Marvel executives talked about the company, the (gendered) identities of its talent, and its relationship with Hollywood; Marvel singled itself out as the only entity that truly had the experience and expertise to deal with these characters.

What was needed, this suggested, was not the licensing-based franchise model they had been relying upon, but a more centralized form of creativity where the ideas remained under the control of the entity that originated them.  This was a more authority-driven idea that connected with common sense notion about creativity—of course Marvel would do a better job making Marvel movies.  Of course 20th Century Fox would be less desirable than the originator.

I’m not trying to identity who does and doesn’t make more objectively good comic book films, so much as illustrate how the celebration of Marvel (and the much-repeated suggestion from fans that Marvel try to buy back X-Men and Spider-Man rights from its old studio partners) is in some ways tied to our continued investment in the idea that “real” or “the best” creativity lies with the originator, not the licensee or franchisee.  Marvel’s success, then, lies beyond the screen in tapping into our continued investment in creative authority.

Agents of SHIELD though represents an even newer moment.  With Avengers already planned as the culmination of a multi-year production sequence before Disney purchased Marvel in 2009, I think we’d have to be careful about characterizing the build-up to that 2012 film as truly indicative of how Marvel operates under Disney.  Agents of SHIELD is perhaps one of the first high profile projects to come more fully out of the new relationship with Disney, and its subsidiary, ABC.

One of the big fan concerns about the Disney deal was what this would mean for Marvel’s autonomy, and Marvel is now in the position of needing to assert that autonomy in the face of not just Disney, but also the TV network.  At the same time, you have producers like Joss Whedon working to create as much distance as proximity to the familiar success of the film, suggesting that the series will have a different, more everyday focus and that recognizable superheroes won’t be doing cameos every week.  Much of this is about managing fan expectations, I’m sure, but I also feel some dimension of it must be about assuring audiences that this project has a creative raison d’etre of its own, as well as an executive independence.

 

Where-as others speak of “world-making,” you write extensively here about “world-sharing.” What are some of the challenges of constructing a world that will be “shared” by many industry participants (not to mention diverse fan communities)? Does this phenomenon of “world-sharing” mean that the idea of a transmedia experience as coherent and coordinated is a practical impossibility given the current structure of the entertainment industry?

 

I think I hinted at this above when comparing transmedia storytelling to franchising, in that there are definitely structural obstacles to making world-sharing happen in a coherent and coordinated way.  When media producers operate within different markets and corporate cultures, or even just in different silos within a single parent company, it is logistically difficult to manage collaboration—which is why companies like Starlight Runner have emerged to perform that labor, and we see new transmedia producer credits for those working to push production past those hurdles.

What I want to emphasize though is that the obstacles aren’t always structural and/or economic—they are often social and tied to a sense of production culture and identity.  World-sharing in a coherent and coordinated way is a challenge because there is often no economic incentivize to do so.  But it is also a challenge because there is sometimes no creative incentive to do so (in the sense that creativity is a type of identity and not just an aesthetic trait).

Think about television spin-offs where two or more related series are in production at the same time.  In that case, the shared world makes it possible for characters from one show to pop up on another, but it rarely happens because of both practical scheduling matters and corporate concerns about dilution and confusion of distinct sub-brands.  At the additional level of production culture, however, producers often resist these kinds of stories, identifying one series and set of characters as “theirs”, and others as belonging to another creative community.  So in the 1990s when you had multiple Star Trek series in production under a single franchise manager (Rick Berman), but with each under the pen of a different writing staff, there was a sense of intra-franchise competition, not cooperation.  Each writing staff and crew had duties specific to one part of the shared world, and they often wanted their contributions to be seen as the best, competing for accolades and attention.  So there were occasional crossovers, sure, but producers just as often resisted coordination because each staff wanted to generate its own identity and culture.

I don’t think that the tensions involved with “world sharing” make transmedia storytelling a practical impossibility, however.  It’s just requires working against these factors, and my own concern is more about the desirability of doing so, the unchallenged privilege we might accord the idea of central authority over sharing, and whether these competing creative visions and tensions may have some alternative value beyond their failure to always produce coherent narratives.

In the process of discussing "over-design" as an industrial process, you've developed what I see as one of the richest account of the production design process within contemporary entertainment. In many ways, contemporary stories are as much constructed by decisions made by art directors and costume designers as they are by decisions made by screenwriters. Yet, our critical discussion of these productions lags behind, often grumbling about products being overly dependent on "special effects" as if these choices could somehow be isolated from the overall experience of the fictional world. To what degree is it important to see these new franchise properties as "designed" rather than "authored?"

Based on how many times I’ve brought it up already, I think I’d be hard pressed to say that authorship isn’t important, since that idea is often the terrain of struggles over creativity in cultural production.  But the idea of design helps us get past the question of who the author is, and more toward how multiplicity, collaboration, and competing claims to authorship can be supported in creative practices.

I like the framework of “design” because it points to the creation of a system or context in which other things will happen.  That’s how I see a lot of the creative energies of franchising at work, where the creativity that occurs in one instance becomes the context for creativity in another.  It might be a little easier to see these dynamics when comparing different entries in a franchise—the way in which the new Star Wars films will be produced in relation to the design of those that have already been produced, for example.  But even outside of franchising, design could be a useful framework for reconceptualizing authorship more generally, in that we might think about how the creative work of many different labor categories (from directors to production designers to foley artists) occurs in relation to a shared context for designed for collaborative creation.

 

Derek Johnson is Assistant Professor of Media and Cultural Studies at the University of Wisconsin - Madison.  He is the author of Media Franchising: Creative License and Collaboration in the Culture Industries (NYU Press, 2013), as well as the co-editor of A Companion to Media Authorship (Wiley-Blackwell, 2013) and Making Media Work: Cultures of Management in the Media Industries (NYU Press, forthcoming 2014).  His research focuses in the media industries, looking at how cultures of production negotiate creativity, convergence, and collaboration.  Most recently he has started working on a new single-authored book project focusing on children's media industries and the way in which producer identities cohere in relation to ideas about age, taste, and the child audience.  He has published several journal articles and chapters on the subject of Marvel Comics and their cross-media practices, and in his forthcoming publications, he has critiqued the industry strategies behind the HerUniverse web shop as well as the racial logics behind LEGO's licensed film and comic minifigures.

Participatory Poland (Part Four): Notes on Comics Fandom in Poland

In the “Participatory Poland” report a group of Polish aca-fen makes a preliminary attempt towards defining the specificity of an Eastern European country’s participatory culture shaped both in the communist and post-communist periods. By placing the development of selected fan-based activities against a broader socio-historical background, we are trying to capture the interplay between the global and the local context of participatory culture, as well as take preliminary steps towards making its Polish branch available for academic research. Thanks to Professor Henry Jenkins’ incredible support, we are able to share the first, though by no means final, results of our investigations with aca-fen worldwide. The posts included in this report deal with several examples of Polish participatory activities, namely, the literary and media fandom of speculative fiction and role-playing games; comics fandom; fandom of manga and anime; historical re-enactment associations; and the prosumerist phenomenon of bra-fitting. While we are planning to continue and expand our research, we hope that its samples presented in this report contribute to the exploration of participatory culture.  

Notes on comics fandom in Poland

Michał Jutkiewicz, Polish Department Jagiellonian University

Rafał Kołsut, Polish Department Jagiellonian University

 

  1. Emergence of comics fandom in the 1980s

Until only a few years ago, history, and especially the 20th century, was the predominant subject of Polish comics. Nowadays that is not the case as more and more psychological and autobiographical stories or even superhero fictions are published. Nevertheless, historical comics, lavishly subsidized by cultural institutions, are still the essential part of the comics’ scene. This obsession with history may result from the fact that the situation of comics in Poland has always been influenced by national political and historical struggles.

After the war, when the communist government was established, the official attitude towards comics was somewhat ambivalent. On one hand, comics were perceived as a medium developed in capitalist countries and representing the corrupted American lifestyle. It is interesting that a lot of communist propaganda’s arguments and accusations—for example, those concerning promoting violence, sex and children’s demoralization — sounded as if they had been taken directly from Fredric Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent.

On the other hand, comics were perceived as a useful tool of propaganda directed especially towards kids. Forming the future citizens of a socialist state became an important issue in the 60s, when more and more comics were published and read by young readers. Probably the most popular were Tytus, Romek and A’Tomek (published from 1957 till today) by Papcio Chmiel and the series about Captain Żbik (Wildcat) created by Władysław Krupka and published from 1967 to 1982. The former series contained slightly surreal stories about the adventures of two scouts and an ape, which were nevertheless packed with an educational and moralizing content. The protagonist of the latter, was a lawful and honorable policeman fighting evil imperialist agents, who plotted against Poland and tried to destroy it.

Many factors influence the fact that, it was impossible for a community of fans to establish itself: among others the young age of the group at which comic books were targeted, a brazen propaganda of communist values  and an absence of comics from other countries. However, the aforementioned comic books were a starting point in the process of familiarizing young people with the medium and encouraging some of them to search for more examples.

The first signs of an emerging community of comics fans could be seen the early 80s and was related with S-F fandom emerging at the same time. Just as before, the formation of both fandoms was at that time closely connected to the political situation in Poland. The end of the 70s was marked by the rise of the Solidarność (Solidarity) movement, which was fulfilling the role of the political opposition. It was also a moment when people in their twenties were looking for some new cultural and social structures to identify with. punk music, with its distinctive fashion and seditious message, was one of the models to follow.

In comparison to the music-based subculture, which was considered by officials as degenerated, the fans of S-F were perceived by the state institutions as harmless, notwithstanding the fact that the genre was developing under the influence of such authors as Stanisław Lem, Kir Bulychov or Strugatsky brothers, who tried to sneak into their novels a veiled critique of the communist system and ironic allusions to the situation in their countries. S-F literature of the 80s was a very particular mixture of escapism and political engagement. A status of a fan and a member of a club of  SF literature was very often considered as a political act although it was not always one’s conscious choice.

The most important Polish magazine devoted to SF, Fantastyka, was established in 1982. It was the first publication of this kind in Poland, and its main goal was the popularization of sci-fi and fantasy literature, as well as the animation and coordination of activities of fan clubs, which were gradually set up all over the country. Comics were the subject of the one of the biggest discussions in the first issue of Fantastyka as the editorial board was debating whether to publish them in the magazine or not. Regardless of those discussions, sci-fi and fantasy comics were gaining popularity, mainly due to the fact that some Polish illustrators, especially Grzegorz Rosiński and Bogusław Polch, who both started their careers creating propaganda comic books in the 70s, have been recognized on Franco-Belgian and German markets. One of Polch’s most recognized series, based on Erich von Daniken’s theories, called Die Götter aus dem All was being published in Germany in the years 1978-1982. Meanwhile, Rosiński began a cooperation with such renowned script writers as Jean Van Hamme (making Thorgal) and André-Paul Duchâteau (Hans). Till this day Rosiński is considered an iconic person in the field of Polish comics and the Polish fandom, and an important guest at all comics conventions.

The editors of Fantastyka decided to print four-page long comics and publish comics-related reviews and news from abroad. The community of comics’ fans was growing so strong that soon a separate comics–oriented addition to the magazine was published from 1987 to 1990. Its name was Komiks – Fantastyka and it was the first attempt to build not only a magazine with comics in it but also a publication which would animate comics’ fans. It also tried to establish a foundation for professional comics criticism as it included articles about such academic theorists as Thierry Groensteen.

“Komiks – Fantastyka” maintained the sci-fi and fantasy profile of Fantastyka. publishing titles like “Hans” (renamed as “Yans”) and “Rork” by Andreas. The majority of translated comics at this time were Franco-Belgian, which created a peculiar generation gap among comics’ fans. Those raised in the 80s tend to prefer stories with realistic and detailed illustrations and strong world building typical of European comics. When in the 90s American superhero comics finally arrived in Poland, another generation of fans grew up. They were more interested characters and action than in with the detailed drawings. This difference can also be seen in the works of Polish comics creators, who in their youth were influenced either by the European style or by the American models.

Only one title published in the 80’ had a major influence on the shape of Polish comics and it can undeniably be called a masterpiece of its time. It is called Funky Koval and was written by Maciej Parowski and Jacek Rodek and illustrated by Bogusław Polch. It was first published in parts in Fantastyka since1982 and then as a whole in Komiks – Fantastyka until 1990. Funky Koval is important not only because of the story it tells but also, if not mainly, because of its cultural influence and the role it played in the integration of the fandom. No other comics of this time would gain a cult position and  become such a prominent point of reference for works published later.

This comic combines all the influences mentioned above: politics, sci-fi and fans. The story centers around a private investigator named Funky Koval, living in the USA in 2080. His adventures are focused on his struggles with evil corporations and corrupt politicians. There is a lot of action but it is not the main point of this comics. The authors of Funky Koval followed the example of literary texts published in Fantastyka and decided to pack their comics with intertextual games and allusions to the current political situation in Poland. The sci-fi façade enabled to avoid censorship and to build an ironic critique of the communist regime. Nearly every evil character was based on a real-life member of the communist party, and known to readers from the TV screen.

Moreover, the hero’s adventures contained allusions to Martial Law enforced in Poland from 1981 to 1983. Hence, readers of the comics were asked to participate in the game of who-is-who, and this aspect of Funky Koval was the key to its popularity. The act of decoding a hidden message was a ground for building a sense of belonging to a greater community, as their members identified  themselves with its hidden political agenda, so that the act of decoding became an act of contestation.

This level of intertextual games in Funky Koval was fairly easy to decrypt for everybody, but the authors went even further and decided to put not only public persons in their creation, but also people known to them personally. Indeed, a lot of characters in the comics are based on people active in the fandom of the 80s. To fully read it, one had to be a member of the community and know sci-fi and fantasy conventions, In this way Funky Koval strengthened the fandom and gave it some identification.

Although the roots of Polish comics fandom are entangled with the community of sci-fi and fantasy fans, it is really interesting to observe how in the 80s it slowly tried to emancipate itself and managed to separate completely in the 90s. At the beginning of the last decade of 20th century comics community started to organize their own conventions strengthening the bonds between community members, which made the group less fragmented and more hermetic.

 

2. Situation during the 90s and 2000s

 

After the political transformation of 1989 Poland was violently struck by a tide of Western culture, almost unknown to an average Polish audience until that time. A phrase effectively describing that period would be “the time of catching-up,” mostly with regard the works of pop culture. Independent distributors were (sometimes illegally) bringing from abroad absolutely everything that had any chance of selling to the newly ‘born’ consumers who were ravenous for novelty. The era of high-volume publications of Krajowa Agencja Wydawnicza (The National Publishing Agency) as the monopolist was gone forever. In 1990, after receiving the approval from the headquarters of Semic Press AB (a company publishing comic books in Scandinavian countries under the license of, among others, Marvel Comics), a Polish-Swedish company - TM Supergruppen Codem (later renamed as TM-Semic) published the first two monthlies in Poland. They contained adventures of the American superheroes: Spider -man and Punisher.

Those comic books had exactly the same format as the original ones, and only the volume was different – every month two stories were presented on 52 pages (in order to „catch-up” with the ongoing series in the USA). In time, having become very popular, Punisher was extended to over 100 pages, but for the sake of costs it was published only in black&white.

Making the first baby steps but noticing a great interest of its readers, the publishing house momentarily expanded its offer. Now, every group of the younger consumers was to receive “something special”. As a result, Barbie, Moomins, Casper, Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles or Garfield appeared in kiosks. The rights for Davis's comics were soon bought by Egmont Polska (part of Egmont Group from Denmark) – the second great distributor for kids and teenagers, publishing also Bugs Bunny and Donald Duck (the latter is still published).

Thanks to the fanclub pages administrated by teenage comic books fan Arkadiusz Wróblewski, the more and more active community of superheroes’ fans started to form. The same year the album Batman/Judge Dredd: Judgment on Gotham was printed on thick paper and in hard cover. Nobody in Poland had published a comic book of such a high quality ever before. Thanks to the company, readers were presented with Knightfall, Dark Phoenix Saga or The Death of Superman. Nevertheless, consumers, familiarized with more and more aspiring titles, had also greater expectations. Simple stories about superheroes stopped selling. Issues dropped down and series after series started vanished from the market. The company collapsed in 2003. It’s place was taken by Egmont, which was not trying to sell the comic books but focused on publishing TPB – cult series for adult reader such as The Sandman or Preacher.

The comic books community calls the 90’s “The Time of Troubles,” during which Polish comics virtually disappeared from the market. The fall of Bogusław Polch’s studio which was working on the graphic adaptation of Andrzej Sapkowski's The Witcher in 1995 is the caesura. Authors active during the time of the People’s Republic of Poland completely withdrew and started to look for other ways of earning money (with several exceptions, for example that of Henryk Chmielewski, the author of the popular young adult comics about Tytus the chimpanzee). Former stars, such as Janusz Christa or Szarlota Pawel decided, that it was not profitable to draw in the new political system.

The tradition was broken – also on the level of master-student relations. The ending of the 20th century belongs to self-taught, underground artists among whom the most active are the authors of hardcore punk fanzines: Dariusz Palinowski, author of Zakazany Owoc (Forbidden Fruit) and Krzysztof Owedyk, author of Prosiacek (Piglet). They both laid the groundwork for the constitution of the so called comic “xeroprasa” (photocopy press). Drawn in back&white and photocopied magazines (and sometimes one-shots) were sent directly to friendly readers from all over the country, that were subsequently photocopying them again and passing them on, usually for free. The scene of comics community fanzines was very similar to its prototype from the United States, but much smaller, of course, and developing almost 30 years later. Zines rose and fell, authors changed titles and places of distribution. The most important titles included Mięso (Meat), Azbest (Asbestos), AQQ and Ziniol (today it is a professional web magazine). A completely new environment formed up, created by people who are active until this day.

In the early 1990s, the Contur group started organizing the annual Ogólnopolski Konwent Twórców Komiksu (National Convent of Comics Authors) in Łódź (currently International Festival of Comics and Games – the most important meeting of Polish comic fandom). The biggest attraction of the festival was the short story comics contest, which quickly became a tradition.

Although many of today’s well established careers had their debuts in that contest, most of the young and promising authors, whose success was foretold at the time, never published anything – creating full-scale albums was absolutely non-profitable, since none of the domestic publishers was even remotely interested in publishing them. In the course of time, that phenomenon was called “Masters of the first board” syndrome because of the declarations and prologues to the stories which would never be created.

Everything changed thanks to Produkt (Product) magazine. Published since 1999 by Independent Press company, Produkt was presenting the latest output of the Polish authors. Today’s stars of Polish comics debuted and published on Product pages, including Michał Śledziński (from Azbest); Minkiewicz brothers; Karol Kalinowski; Ryszard Dąbrowski, the creator of the Likwidator (Liquidator) – a masked anti-hero who is an eco-terrorist and a serial killer; or Rafał Skarżycki and Tomasz Leśniak, the authors of George the Hedgehog series.

The comics published in Produkt belonged to the mainstream due to the magazine’s scope and professional distribution, but at the same time they were free from any publishing or editorial control. They contained violence, nudity, vulgarisms, satire against the government, the Church and authority in general. There was no taboo or censorship. The most important series that was published on Produkt’s pages, Osiedle Swoboda (Liberty District), created by the magazine’s Editor in Chief, Śledziński, was focused on young people’s everyday life in Poland. During its five years of existence Produkt not only brought together the most engaged authors and enlarged the number of regular consumers of graphic stories of domestic provenance but, most importantly, set the direction for Polish comics for the following years.

In 2005 Paweł Timofiejuk, currently the most important publisher at the Polish market, started a publishing line called Komiksowa Alternatywa (Comic Alternative) in frames of which he presented the cult albums of authors of fanzines, previously known only from the comic photocopying press. The artists, so far bereft of the chance to show their work to the world, could finally present the results of honing their skills. That so called “airing of the drawers” lasted for two years.

The time of the growing prosperity caused by the dissemination of cheap digital printing began. Publishing both the albums and the professional magazines privately became easier than ever before. Many independent publishing houses have been created, among which some are focused on publishing Polish authors only. Others are diversifying their offer, combining the most important works of the European authors with the local novelties. Polish artists are focused on creating authorial albums that they work on for months or sometimes even years.

Because of the very low sales of comic books and a small number of their readers, creating comics is not a profitable job. Polish comic books community which is the basis of the market has around 3 000 members, with a scarce addition of casual readers, who are usually interested just in one particular series. There is no such job as a “comic book author” in Poland. The graphic, the scriptwriters and the publishers are keeping regular jobs, while they work on comic books after hours and at weekends. The pay in the European standard can be provided only by the contract for educational albums devoted to the history of Poland (especially WWII ) and mostly funded by the government. Still, despite the difficult financial situation and the tiny market, every year 400 new comic books (mostly counting more than 48 pages) are published, about 120 of which are Polish authors’ productions covering ground from superhero stories of to formally experimental artistic albums.

3. Comics fandom and the Internet in the first decade of the 21st century

Around 2000, more and more households had Internet connections, which exerted a huge impact on different kinds of fandoms, fans of comics included. The first visible effect of the Internet’s growth in Poland was that the majority of printed comics magazines were discontinued one by one. Their main function in the 90s was to inform readers about newly published works and the schedules of upcoming conventions. The pages of comics magazines featured debuting authors who in turn could receive a critical feedback.

Yet none of these publications was able to build authority strong enough to act as a platform of institutionalized criticism. Probably one of the reasons was that the community was so small that readers and creators were closely linked anyway and could get feedback about their work immediately and directly just through personal connections. Very few people with academic background, such as Jerzy Szyłak and Wojciech Birek, put an effort to write more complex reviews, but those articles were not received well. That is why there was never an ongoing discussion about the condition of Polish comics during the 90s or at the beginning of the 21st century even though a lot of comics magazines were published.

From 2000 the Internet became the main source of information about newly published works and publishers’ plans for subsequent months, taking away one of the main reasons for the existence of not only comics magazines but also of other fan centered periodicals. The same thing happened to magazines about role-playing games – the last issue of one of the oldest such magazine, called Magia i Miecz (Magic and Sword), was printed in 2002 – and a little bit later, around 2005, to magazines about video games.

Also debuts began to be published online. The debut of the first Polish webcomics occurred during that period, which came as a shock especially to the community of comics fans and creators. Suddenly, the old and highly ritualized ways of publishing were losing their significance. Before, one had to show his or her work to someone in the community to be published. Even such an anarchistic genre as zines were following this procedure. The highly ritualized act of publishing was a social activity requiring contacts and acceptance of the community.

Comics on the Internet could appear on websites without all that. Thanks to the WWW new energy, comics fandom, which was becoming a little stale with no fresh blood (because of the declining numbers of comics readers), rejuvenated as a new generation of authors appeared. As early as in 2004 the anthology, Komiks w sieci (Comics on the Web) was published, which is a significant fact exemplifying how massive this wave of new creativity was.

Up to that point a lot of activities of the fandom were possible only a few times in a year, when people met on conventions, but thanks to the availability of the Internet, it could be done from a distance. Clearly, the comic fans needed an electronic forum where they would be able to discuss their interests. One of the most interesting and still active websites is esensja, which started as an e-zin in 2000. After 13 years it continues the tradition of imitating paper magazines with a monthly set of articles published along with news and reviews, which appear on a daily basis. A significant feature of this website is that, continuing the tradition of Fantastyka in the 80s, it tries to bring together different communities, for example fans of genre literature and movies, comics and games. Its popularity shows that there are fans who do not need to relate to a very narrow group of people with the same interests.

Another fascinating Polish website about comics is Zeszyty Komiksowe (Comics Notebooks). As is the case of esensja, this portal is connected to a magazine which has appeared irregularly in a paper form since 2004. The most important feature of Zeszyty Komiksowe is that every issue is devoted to a particular subject and that it publishes academic papers. It would be easy to dismiss the website because it usually publishes just news and sometimes reviews, but one element makes it very useful. Under the link “kopalnia” (mine) one can find a repository of academic articles about comics. It is a community based project, so it depends on people willing to share their work (usually BA or MA dissertations) to build collectively a comprehensive list of references. At the moment it has 1177 items. This is very admirable, taking into account the non-existence of comics studies in the Polish academic curriculum, as there are still very few academics writing about comics. Of course, many articles put on the Zeszyty Komiksowe website lack academic rigor and are a little naïve, but they are still a great example of the way fans are trying to fit with their fascination with comics into academic discourse.

The last, and most important website for Polish community of fans, which has somehow become the center of Polish comics fandom is called Gildia Komiksu (the Comics Guild). It is a part of a bigger portal, gildia.pl, which has been active since 2001. The basic assumption of this website is completely opposite to that of esensja. Esensja tries to unify different communities of fans, while Gildia is divided into many “guilds” with different subjects of interest (conventions, movies, tabletop miniature games, computer games, tabletop games, horror, supernatural, RPG, Star Wars etc.), so that different fans can find a content of their interest. This segmentation was a starting point for comics fandom to grow in its own closed environment.

The main purpose of the website, as in the case of the ones mentioned above, is to give users the news and publish reviews, but the most important part of the portal is a forum, which during the 11 years of its existence has grown and attracted the attention of the most active people in fandom. After such a long time it is easy to see how the number of posts and authority of a given person on the forum reflect their social position during conventions. Of course, not every member of the community is active on the forum, but still it is one of the most important reference points. This is why topics of the forum can be treated as some vestigial form of discussion about comics which never happened in the 90s. It is a peculiar form of institutionalized criticism, additionally characterized by irony, trolling and lack of discipline: the typical features of Internet forums.

Gildia Komiksu is a source of hermetic jokes and memes understood only among fans of comics. The saying “back of a horse” is an example of such a phrase, as it originates in a 2007 debate on the forum, concerning the role of realist illustration in comics. In a heated discussion one of the participants said that creators of comics try to draw artistically, forgetting about simple things as “drawing a woman’s back properly and making an anatomically correct horse”. That is why some fans ask illustrators to draw them a back of a horse to humorously test their skills.

plecykonia (1)

All such phrases and inside jokes play a huge role in building the community, but for a newcomer it is really hard to get up-to-date with the eleven years of the forum’s activity. New users are treated kindly, but with a distance, typical of close-knitted groups.

4. The community of comics fans nowadays

From the outside, the community of comics fans can be perceived as a heteronomous group keeping very close ties and being reluctant to open up to newcomers. The majority are male representatives of three generations (those raised in the 80s, the 90s and first years of the 21st century), highly diversified, yet able to keep close with each other.

The publication of the comic called Rycerz Ciernistego Krzewu (The Knight of Spiny Shrub), which was a cooperation between a writer, a colorist and many different illustrators, shows that it is hard to join a community of fans. Every two pages of this comics were drawn by a different person but colored by the same one. As a concept it sounded experimental and interesting (even though previously used for example in Grant Morrison’s Invisibles), but the realization was a mess. This comic tried to tell a story of a Polish knight fighting with Teutonic knights, but it failed in every aspect.

The wave of critical reviews was justifiable, but their tone was somehow surprising. The authors were criticized for making  bad comics, and the critics’ shared assumption was that the technical problems with mastering the medium were an effect of the creators’ status of outsiders in the fandom community. They were treated as barbarians whose lack of the knowledge of customs makes them unworthy of joining the club.

One of the authors decided to aggressively fight back, which heated the discussion up to the point of full-blown controversy. This conflict shows that the Polish comics fandom tends nowadays to look for enemies to consolidate itself against. For some period manga and anime fans were playing a role of such an enemy, as they are usually female and mostly younger than average fans in the comics community. However, in many cases, people who read manga have been treating it as something essentially different from comics. Not many manga fans read works published in Europe or America. That is why those communities rarely meet, as manga and anime fans organize their own conventions.

Anyway, that particular antagonism is slowly burning out, as more ambitious mangas are being published, attracting the interest of fans of western comics. One of the first manga publishers widely read by both communities was “Hanami,” which specialized in gekiga genre, translating such works as Naoki Urasawa’s Pluto or the works of Jiro Taniguchi. This shows that there are some connections between both fandoms, and that some people move freely from one group to the other.

However, what the conflict with the manga fandom has shown is the existence of a broader problem of the marginalization of women in the comics community, among both fans and creators. Although women who are authors of comics books are not a totally new phenomenon, as confirmed for instance by Szarlota Pawel, one of the most popular creators of comics for children in the communist period, the number of Polish female comics creators has recently been increasing. Two anthologies presenting women creating comics in Poland were printed in 2012: the first one was entitled Polski komiks kobiecy (Polish female comics) and the second one was published in English, as Polish Female Comics – Double Portrait. As an outcome of this project, the editors launched a website Comix Grrrlz , where we can find a database of Polish female creators of comics.

This emancipation of the female perspective in comics and of feminist themes shows that there is a need for an opposition to the mainstream, male dominated market. A lot of the creators who appear in both anthologies have belonged to the fandom for a long time, but the individuality of their voices was never recognized. The importance of these two publications lies in the fact that they have unexpectedly revealed Polish fandom of comics not to be as monolithic and patriarchal as commonly perceived.

One of the attempts to reform the community  from the inside is to create an event that would go beyond the frames of typical scenarios for a convention of comics fans. This is one of the main goals of “Centrala” publishing house, the organizer of the International Comics Festival “Ligatura,” which takes place in Poznań. During this annual event “Centrala” is focused mainly on the promotion of alternative comics from the Central and Eastern Europe. As a result of this strategy, not so many internationally recognized stars attend the convention, and its organizers achieve an effect similar to that produced by both anthologies of female comics, i.e. make the community reflect on the essence of Polish comics in relation to their local and geopolitical contexts.

Every year during the festival the question of similarities and differences between countries from the former Soviet Union is approached. As an attempt to tackle this question, every year there is an exhibition launched with an accompanying lecture, workshops and other activities. “Ligatura” is an effective counterpoint to the slightly monotonous formulas of the conventions organized in Warsaw or Łódź. The strategy of stressing the role of alternative comics builds another kind of opposition to the mainstream, which is an important way to open up the Polish fandom to works published in the neighboring countries.

Another interesting attempt to blur the lines within the comics community is Wyjście z Getta (Coming out of the Ghetto) a collection of interviews conducted by Sebastian Frąckiewicz with creators of Polish comics. The starting point of Frąckiewicz’s book is acknowledging the fact that the Polish comics market is a niche, or even a ghetto. During the interviews, the author wonders whether it is possible for the whole community, but especially for the authors, to get out. He does not think that suddenly comics in Poland will become mainstream, but he confronts his interviewees with a notion of connecting two “ghettos,” so to speak, i.e. the comics community and the art world. He postulates putting comics into galleries.

This solution is highly debatable and a little utopian, but still Frąckiewicz manages to make many interesting points. The Polish fandom faced with a perspective of never being part of the mainstream tends to incorporate the role of the victim. In the 80s the role of the antagonist was played by the communist government, and now it has become ascribed to amateurs trying to make comics without proper skills and knowledge. To end this trend, comics fandom has to be constantly faced with other communities and its borders have to be constantly transgressed. It does not matter whether it happens in a confrontation with other communities or with minority groups inside the fandom. The current situation of comics and comics fandom in Poland is fluid. The hierarchical structure has been challenged on many occasions, which allows the community to redefine itself and refresh its own priorities.

 

Bibliography

Comics Grrrlz – comicsgrrrlz.pl

Esensja – esensja.pl

„Fantastyka” 1/1982 – 6 (93)/1990

„Fantastyka – Komiks” 1/1987 – 1-2 (10-11)/1990

S. Frąckiewicz; Wyjście z Getta. Rozmowy o kulturze komiksowej w Polsce; Warsaw 2012

Gildia Komiksu – komiks.gildia.pl

„Komiks” 1/1990 – 2 (32) / 1995

Komiks w Sieci. Antologia polskiego komiksu internetowego; Cracow 2004

Kontekstowy miks. Przez opowieści graficzne do analizy kultury współczesnej; ed. G. Gajewska, R. Wójcik; Poznań 2011

Ł. Kowalczuk; TM – Semic. Największe komiksowe wydawnictwo lat dziewięćdziesiątych w Polsce; Poznań 2013.

„Nowa Fantastyka” 1/1990 – 4 (367)/2013; fantastyka.pl

M. Parowski, J. Rodek, B. Polch; Klasyka polskiego komiksu #6 - Funky Koval; Warsaw 2002

Polish Female Comics - Double Portrait; Poznań 2012

Polski komiks kobiecy; ed. K. Kuczyńska; Warsaw 2012

Zeszyty Komiksowe – zeszyty komiksowe.org

 

 

 

 

About the Autors

 

Michał Jutkiewicz – PhD candidate at the Polish Studies Department of Jagiellonian University, writing his thesis on comics and comics culture on the Internet. Lecturer and an active member of Małopolskie Studio Komiksowe (Małopolska Comics Studio) at Public Library in Cracow, where he conducts regular meetings. One of the organizers of Krakowski Festiwal Komiksu (Cracow’s Comics Festival).

Rafał Kołsut – final year student of Theatre studies at Polish Studies Department on Jagiellonian University. Comic book scriptwriter, collaborating with magazines and annual anthologies such as Ziniol, Triceps, Kolektyw (Collective), Profanum. Pop culture reviewer in KZ – Magazyn Miłośników Komiksu (KZ - Comic Fans Magazine).

[Illustration: Back of the Horse by Robert Sienicki]

 

 

 

"Media Mix Is Anime's Life Support System": A Conversation with Ian Condry and Marc Steinberg (Part Four)

As both of you mention, Walt Disney’s work as an animator and as an industry leader exerted a strong influence on the development of the Anime system. What did the Japanese learn from Disney and how were his practices localized for the specific Japanese context?

Ian: Tezuka watched Bambi, 80 or 100 times, depending on which story you believe. He made fanzines of Disney characters. In his manga, “Metropolis,” one of the characters escapes from an evil-doer’s prison by sewing himself inside a giant irradiated rat that looks suspiciously like Mickey Mouse. Anime fans often note that remarkable similarities between Tezuka’s “Kimba the White Lion” and the much later “Lion King” by Disney.

Then again, as Otsuka Eiji noted at conference that Marc organized at Concordia University: “It’s true that Disney’s Lion King stole from ‘Kimba.’ But that’s OK because Tezuka stole from Bambi.” That got a laugh.

In his 2004 book, “The Complete History of Anime” (in Japanese, Nihon no anime zenshi), the anime historian Yasuo Yamaguchi identified a range of influences that reach from aesthetics to labor and business practices:

• The use of exaggerated expressions—for example, the “squash and stretch system” of deforming characters to emphasize their personalities.

• The storyboard system, which allowed Disney to use a variety of sequential pictures to convey the story and the feeling of the scenes to the animators.

• A curriculum for training new talent, which was necessary because with each hit production, animators would be hired away from Disney at higher salaries. Disney responded by developing a system to train new workers.

• The division-of-labor system, which allowed the Disney studio to work on animated shorts and feature-length films at the same time.

• Establishment of the Disney brand—for example, by describing all works as “Walt Disney presents” and polishing the brand image by having Disney himself personally introduce the works.

• The development of merchandising, whereby the licensor of animated characters would receive 3–7 percent of the sales price of goods related to those characters, which was necessary to offset the deficits incurred by animation production (Yamaguchi, Nihon no Anime Zenshi, 2004: 36–38).

The big adaptation of Disney’s ideas comes from relying increasingly on limited animation to make anime more cheaply, and by relying on already-popular manga characters to ensure a wide viewership.

Henry: One of the things many of us think we know about Anime and Manga is that its readership extends well beyond children, that it is much more diverse than would true of similar productions in the west. How is this diversity managed? Some forms of cultural production seem structured around generational or subcultural niches, while others get discussed in terms of their ability to enable transgenerational communication. What can you tell us about the relationship between niche and mainstream as they operate in this context?

Ian: Perhaps the key to the diversity around manga is that it is not well managed, at least not from above. What is managed is incorporating reader responses.

As I discuss in my book’s chapter 5, some writers have pointed out, correctly I think, that manga represents a kind of “democratic capitalism,” in the sense that the most popular works are also the best. They contrast this with music and film, where heavy-handed marketing can make somewhat mediocre productions become big hits. Not so, they argue, with manga. People who love manga read a lot of it. You can read it for free standing in a convenience story, and even manga that is purchased generally gets passed around to at least a few friends.

I’ll never forget when I met one of the founders of Comic Market (the enormous manga fanzine convention), and I asked him what manga I should be reading. He said, “All of it.”

I think that’s the attitude of the serious fans. They go through a tremendous amount of material. Each weekly-serialized magazine comes out with about 20 stories, and the readers are asked to send in postcards evaluating the best and worst three. The major publishers receive about 3000-4000 postcards a week. Popular series keep going, and less popular ones are removed to make way for a few of the legions of amateur artists hoping for their big chance.

Indeed, the diversity makes it difficult to characterize the links between niche and mainstream. Put simply, however, that niche series become mainstream often do so the old fashioned way, by building an audience.

Marc, you draw a useful distinction between toys which replicate the characters and toys which help the consumer to become the character. How central are forms of role-play to the cultural and economic processes you are both describing?

Marc: It’s a complex issue. In my book I note how there’s a shift from characters that you can be or play to characters toys that you can play with. In the late 50s costumes for the various characters were the rage, and children imitated their favorite characters, they became them. For a number of reasons including growing urbanization, the decline of play space and time, and the general rise in income that gave children greater spending power, the 1960s saw the rise of toys that can be played with. Children no longer bought the mask, the gun and the gloves, they bought the Astro Boy replica toy. In that moment they were cut out of a certain kind of play that allowed them to be the character – they could only play with the character.

This was followed closely after by the kaiju monster toy explosion that extended this. What I don’t talk about in my book is that the 70s sees a different shift: the rise of video games, where the character appears on screen. In some ways this was an extension of the character you play with, but it was also an opening towards that earlier form of play: you could feel like you are the character onscreen.

Another space we can see the return to being the character is in cosplay, where you build and inhabit the character for particular periods of time. I think it’s in these moments that you find the collaborative energy that Ian discusses. The character becomes the nexus for a kind of creative, or community-forming activity on the part of the cosplaying fans, and a kind of excitement for the surrounding people too.

 The concept of “moe” has been central to the study of Japanese anime, but it may not be familiar to many western readers. What is “moe”? What role does it play in shaping production and reception?

Ian: “Moe” (pronounced “moh-ay”) is a very unusual term. It generally refers to an affectionate yearning, often for young, female characters, and there’s a lot of debate about whether there is a sexual element to this longing or whether it is more about an innocent desire to nurture and protect.

“Moe” also has the same sound, though different kanji character, as “burning.” So, there can also an implication of raging flames of desire.

More precisely, however, “moe” refers to a kind emotional response to visuals, with or without a storyline or world around it. People publish photo books on “factory moe,” for example, aimed at those who respond to the elaborate architecture of refineries or manufacturing plants.

The point of using the term, I think, is to acknowledge the enormous diversity of fascination and desire that can arise from visual elements. Hiroki Azuma, who Marc mentions above, offers an extended discussion of moe in his book Otaku. He makes the point that moe is another departure from the emphasis on story, and even character, focusing instead on elements of characters, like cat ears, a tail, or glasses.

Indeed, the science fiction writer Mari Kotani organizes a regular club event in Tokyo for women who are fascinated by eyeglasses (megane moe). Their response is to the eyeglasses, not the personality of the person behind those eyeglasses. Talk about post-gender!

 Many of us have turned to Japan in search of alternative models for consumer-producer relations. What insights did you gain from your research about the ways that fans have sought to insert themselves in the production process around Anime? To what degree do Japanese media producers solicit the active participation of their audiences?

Ian: This is a really interesting question. My experience is that there is a sharp generational difference among Japanese media producers. The higher-ups at major manga publishers and anime studios begrudgingly admit that fan appropriation is something that they have to accept. The manga publishers I spoke to, for example, hate the idea of Comic Market amateur producers using their characters without permission or recompense. But they don’t really fight it either.

Some say that’s because the Japanese legal system would be harder to navigate successfully. I like to think it’s because deep down, they recognize their need to let fans have their spaces of participation.

As I mentioned already, manga publishers very much do solicit the feedback of fans and work these responses into their selections for future issues of their magazines. Anime producers don’t have this luxury because they have to start work six months in advance of broadcast, so they have a much more difficult time incorporating fan ideas.

But when I interview younger media producers, they seem to be aiming to create a very different kind of media object. They want to produce something that can be a “platform” rather than a narrative or some kind of “content.”

They are learning from the success of Miku, Japan’s crowd-sourced virtual singing idol. Miku started as voice synthesizer software that Crypton Future Media released, along with a free-to-use image of her as a blue-haired, 16-year-old pixie. Fans made the music, elaborated on the illustrations, and created their own videos, such that Miku has become one of the leading singing stars today, even though, technically, she doesn’t exist. Or rather, she exists as the social energy of fans that bring her to life.

In this, younger media producers see that openness, not control, can be the key to success. (Isn’t it interesting how copyright control no longer seems the key to making money?) When I spoke to a recent college grad with his own media startup, he similarly spoke of his desire to follow the path to success of the Toho Project, a vast transmedia phenomena that started as an amateur video game.

In both cases (and we could identify others), the success arises from creating something—a character, a world, a certain kind of premise, or a participatory space around something completely different—that others can build upon. To me, this represents a further shift from thinking about media in terms things internal to a world (story, character, premise) and more about creating figurative platforms that others can build upon.

This perspective has the potential to completely transform what we think of as media, and I think it offers some fascinating possibilities for thinking of the politics and pleasures of media. I guess it simply remains to be seen how spreadable these practices can be.

 

 

Ian Condry is professor of media and cultural studies in Comparative Media Studies at MIT.  He is the author of The Soul of Anime:  Collaborative Creativity and Japan's Media Success Story (Duke U Press, 2013).  The book explores ethnographically the global spread of Japanese animation, from fieldwork in Tokyo's studios to participation in fan conventions in the US.  His first book, Hip-Hop Japan: Rap and the Paths of Cultural Globalization (Duke U Press, 2006), analyzes the way rap music took root in Japan.  His research focuses on "globalization from below," that is, cultural movements that succeed, despite skepticism from elites.  He is the founder and organizer of the MIT/Harvard Cool Japan research project, which examines the cultural connections, dangerous distortions and critical potential of popular culture.  More info:  http://iancondry.com

Marc Steinberg is assistant professor of Film Studies at Concordia University, Montreal. He is the author of Anime’s Media Mix: Franchising Toys and Characters in Japan (University of Minnesota Press, 2012), and has published essays on anime, franchising and digital media in Japan ForumAnimation: An Interdisciplinary Journal,ParachuteJournal of Visual CultureTheory, Culture & Society, Mechademia, and Canadian Journal of Film Studies. Continuing the study of the media mix, his current research project explores the close relation between “contents” and “platforms” in Japanese media industry discourse and practice, from the 1980s to the present.

"Media Mix Is Anime's Life Support System": A Conversation with Ian Condry and Marc Steinberg (Part Two)

Research on the Japanese “media mix” and the western “transmedia” phenomenon both must grapple with the blurring boundaries between storytelling/imagination/creativity/play and branding/marketing/promotion. Are these two forces separable at this point within the system you describe? Does the presence of branding necessarily negate the meaningfulness of the characters and stories for those people who are playing with their likenesses?

Marc: My book focuses more on the marketing side of things, and Ian’s on the collaborative side of things (fan collaboration and production-side collaboration). Simply put the system and the soul. I’d hazard to guess that we both agree that in practice one can’t be separated from the other. They can be described separately but they work together.

Our books are very complementary in that sense. The marketer in me wants to say: send us proofs of purchase for both and we’ll send you some stickers!

But joking aside, I think if you look at developments in the media mix over the last couple decades, the storytelling-creativity and branding-marketing are getting closer and closer.

One of the reasons for this is the rise of amateur production and the fluidity of boundaries between amateurs and pros. The Comike (Comic Market) where amateurs meet to sell their creations is one of the places where these boundaries break down. Publishers learn from fans, and successful dojinshi creators become professional comic artists.

In more recent years many of the top amateur game makers have gone pro. But what pro means is itself hard to pin down. My pessimistic side sees this as the increasing appropriation of fan labor and fan production by large corporations. But I also tend to see the circulation of character images as having a media life of its own. Corporations may see this as moving for their own profit. Fans see this circulation as moving to their benefit. But neither can exist without the other, and creativity exists on both sides of this equation, producers and consumers.

I think this is something Ian shows really nicely in his ethnographies of production sites, and it’s something I feel all the more concretely the more I learn about particular moments of media mix production.

Ian: You ask, “Does the presence of branding necessarily negate meaningfulness . . . ?” Certainly not. I recall an acquaintance that wore a T-shirt with an illustration of the playful “Pipo” character, who represents the National Police Agency, and it was version of this: (The orange character is Pipo, who represents the National Police Agency in Japan).

As graffiti artists have shown for a long time, those without the resources to pay for them can use the power of billboards. On the question of whether the forces of play and imagination are separable from branding and marketing, I like to think so, but deep down, I’m not sure.

Or, to put it another way, maybe that distinction is not the one that matters. Maybe a different question is the purposes that marketing and advertising are put towards. Both Greenpeace and Wal-Mart rely on branding and marketing, but evaluating their role depends on thinking beyond the category of marketing to include an analysis of the larger roles organizing play in our society. As an FCC chairman once said, “All TV is educational; the question is what does it teach.” So, too, with advertising.

Even fan activity can be marketing, but what are the implications for what is being exchanged? That’s something I learned from Textual Poachers and it’s still vitally relevant today.

Both “media mix” and “transmedia” imply a certain kind of immateriality -- characters that can draw interest across a range of media -- and materiality -- a focus on the affordances or material properties of the different medium involved. When and how do the specific properties of the media involved in “media mix” matter?

Marc: Materiality is a good way to keep an eye on the specificity of its medial incarnation. Even in the age of digitization, where there is to some degree a convergence around hardware or platforms, there is still the materiality of the interface, and the specificity of the particular media object you’re reading or watching or playing. Immateriality is a way of understanding the character as something that exceeds any one of these material incarnations or interfaces. Whenever we engage with a media mix property we’re engaging with both at the same time.

Personally, I came to these questions of materiality and immateriality when I wanted to understand why children of the 1960s went so crazy over Astro Boy stickers. And why they also wanted Astro toys, and all else, from comics to shoes to records with the theme song.

Ian: When I think of immateriality, I would draw attention to the social energy that flows through characters and worlds. Characters and worlds are certainly one aspect of immateriality. They can move among media forms, from comic book pages, to TV screens, to portable gaming systems. But I see these characters as a link between people.

For me, the immateriality is a kind of social energy that flows through the characters and helps bind us together as creators and fans. When I meet someone who cares about an anime series that I like as well, I experience a kind of electrical charge. I get energized in the sense of having an urge to learn more, to connect, to share.

The materiality of media has a mirror image in the sociality of media. If not, how could media be meaningful? To what degree are the practices described as “media mix” a byproduct of media conglomeration? Is it possible for smaller companies and independents to compete effectively within a media mix economy?

Marc: That’s a key question, and something that’s interesting me more and more. The media mix came out of a franchising or licensing model at a time when there wasn’t much conglomeration, at least not between the companies doing the media mix. Publishers were publishers, animation companies were animation companies, albeit with licensing divisions that dealt with the commercial side of the media mix. There seemed to be little in the way of horizontal conglomeration in the media sphere (though the exception might be in the television industry, with a kind of TV-radio-newspaper companies like Asahi).

But as far as I can tell, it’s really in the 1970s when Kadokawa Books starts a film division that media conglomeration develops around media mix practice. This was based on a blockbuster model of high investment, high return – and the returns weren’t always so high.

So in the 1990s and especially the 2000s, Kadokawa and other companies shift to a “production committee” model of financing that sees the outlay spread over a number of media or non-media companies. Book publishers promise funds, novelizations, or promotions in bookstores; TV stations promise funds, but also spots on air; ad agencies promise TV spots, and so on.

The total cut a given company takes is based on their initial investment. That’s why you often see the words “ ‘XYZ’ Production Committee” at the end of a production – for instance “‘Attack on Titan’ Production Committee” at the end of the credits for the current show Attack on Titan. Most Japanese anime, TV drama and films have this credit line and use this kind of financing. I think of it as a kind of distributed or temporary conglomeration. (There are two excellent reports on this trend available at: http://www.mangamoviesproject.com/publications.html)

That said, the companies that tend to make up the production committees are often the large publishing houses, TV stations and ad agencies. The best chance for independents to develop their own media mix is for their content to catch on in one of the many informal channels – like NicoNico Douga (the YouTube of Japan), or the Comic Market – or to start as a serialization in one of the many comic or novel magazines.

Lucky Star, for instance, started off as a 4-frame “gag” comic in Comptiq, a game magazine. It was basically just filler. But it really caught on, and became one of the media mix hits of the 2000s, and helped kick off a whole craze around 4-frame comics. There are also some daring animation production houses like Kyoto Animation or Shaft that are willing to take chances on untested material.

Many of the media mixes with the greatest impact actually start out as a manga print serialization, and magazines have been called the R&D labs for the media mix. So compared to a Hollywood production or even an HBO TV series, the bar for entry even to official media channels is a lot lower in Japan.

Henry: Anime has become a global phenomenon with consumers world-wide. To what degree are decisions surrounding animation production driven by local market conditions and to what degree are producers seeking to develop a product which will have transnational appeal?

Ian: In my experience, few of the companies in Japan were specifically aiming for a transnational market. The story I often heard was that Pokemon was designed for Japan with no consideration for overseas’ audiences, and yet it was a huge success, so Japanese creators would do best to aim simply for a Japanese market.

At the same time, the prices for anime DVDs in Japan are much higher than the US, often upwards of $60 for 50 minutes (two episodes) worth of animation, so there was also less incentive to make animation for American audiences.

I have to admit, I was a little disappointed. I went to script meetings in part to hear about how the creators thought about audiences both in Japan and the US. I remember writing grant proposals with this as a research question. But in script meetings, no one ever talked about fans.

In my experience, the creators viewed themselves as the fan-experts who mattered. When Mamoru Hosoda, an anime director said he also rarely thinks about the audience, I admitted that I was a little hurt by that. I always imagined media creators imagining me when they worked. He laughed and said I was getting it all wrong: “I don’t think about your reaction because I’m hoping you’ll have reactions that I can’t even imagine.” That, for him, is what makes anime an intriguing art form.

On the other hand, some studios, like Gonzo, were thinking at least somewhat about reaching out overseas, and this was one of the reasons that they set their series Red Garden in New York City. By and large, though, anime studios felt they had to aim for their main, domestic audience first.

I think some of the current backlash among US fans against “fan service” (i.e., racy or sexist, depending on your perspective) anime is partly an outcome of Japan’s studios aiming for a particular, domestic fan.

 

Ian Condry is professor of media and cultural studies in Comparative Media Studies at MIT.  He is the author of The Soul of Anime:  Collaborative Creativity and Japan's Media Success Story (Duke U Press, 2013).  The book explores ethnographically the global spread of Japanese animation, from fieldwork in Tokyo's studios to participation in fan conventions in the US.  His first book, Hip-Hop Japan: Rap and the Paths of Cultural Globalization (Duke U Press, 2006), analyzes the way rap music took root in Japan.  His research focuses on "globalization from below," that is, cultural movements that succeed, despite skepticism from elites.  He is the founder and organizer of the MIT/Harvard Cool Japan research project, which examines the cultural connections, dangerous distortions and critical potential of popular culture.  More info:  http://iancondry.com

Marc Steinberg is assistant professor of Film Studies at Concordia University, Montreal. He is the author of Anime’s Media Mix: Franchising Toys and Characters in Japan (University of Minnesota Press, 2012), and has published essays on anime, franchising and digital media in Japan ForumAnimation: An Interdisciplinary Journal,ParachuteJournal of Visual CultureTheory, Culture & Society, Mechademia, and Canadian Journal of Film Studies. Continuing the study of the media mix, his current research project explores the close relation between “contents” and “platforms” in Japanese media industry discourse and practice, from the 1980s to the present.

"Media Mix is Anime's Life Support System": A Conversation with Ian Condry and Marc Steinberg (Part One)

This is the second in a series of interviews with key thinkers whose work addresses questions of world-building as they relate to media mix and transmedia practices. The previous installment featured Mark J. P. Wolf talking about his work on Tolkien's notion of "subcreation" and the larger concept of "imaginary worlds." In a Making Of video included on the dvd release of The Matrix, it is revealed that the Wachowski Siblings first conceived of their transmedia approach to the franchise as they were flying back from the first film's premiere in Tokyo. I have always assumed that this mid-Pacific brainstorming was inspired by what they saw when they visited the media capital of Japan and no doubt talked to creators there who have long worked in the media mix tradition. Some years back, I made this trip myself, tagging along with my then-MIT colleague Ian Condry as he began to do the interviews with anime and manga producers that would form the foundations for his new book, The Soul of Anime: Collaborative Creativity and Japan's Media Success Story. For me, the experience was eye-opening as I developed a sense of the scale, scope, and speed with which a pop culture phenomenon moves through this culture. I still discuss with amazement the cosplayers I saw in Yoyogi Park and the massive manga stores we visited in Akiharbara. Japanese media mix long proceeded the American transmedia tradition and it's no shock when I discover yet another transmedia producer who started out as an anime/manga geek. I have featured an interview here before with Condry about his earlier work on hip hop in Japan and about a fascinating Anime-inflected performance he helped to stage while I was at MIT.

My own understanding of media mix has been strongly informed by the work of Marc Steinberg -- both his own recent book, Anime's Media Mix: Franchising Toys and Characters in Japan and his translations of some key works by Japanese critics and practioners about the media mix tradition. I had a chance to sit down and talk with Marc when I visited Concordia University earlier this year, and at the time, I invited a scheme to get Marc and Ian to do a joint interview which might help place the Japanese approach into greater clarity for my readers. What follows is that exchange, conducted this summer, via email.

Henry: Let’s start with a question that Ian raises early in his book, “Why did Japan, of all places, become a global leader in animation”?

 Ian: Japanese animation or “anime” makes up 60% of the world’s broadcast TV cartoons, according to JETRO, a Japanese trade organization. Feature film anime is a global presence as well, with notable directors like Hayao Miyazaki, Mamoru Oshii, and Mamoru Hosoda. Anime has gone global with both mass audiences and a diversity of subcultures. I would break down the sources of Japanese success in these too simple terms:

• Astro Boy beat Bambi by making animation more cheaply and quickly.

• Much anime is based on already popular comics, or “manga,” and manga are more expansive and diverse compared to US comics in part because Americans fell for junk science in the 1950s.

• Anime’s success centers on characters more than stories, opening particular spaces for fan participation and transmedia collectives.

I discuss each of these elements in more detail in my book, but let me touch on some of the highlights. Osamu Tezuka was a pioneer in television animation in Japan, and also a leading comic book artist from the 1950s to his death in 1989. He was deeply influenced by Disney’s classic animated films, including Bambi, which he allegedly watched more than 80 times. (The “big eyes” of anime characters might be traced in part to this influence and that of the Fleischer Brothers’ animation like Betty Boop.)

Marc will discuss the business model Tezuka relied on for his first TV series Astro Boy, begun in 1963, which was based on an already popular manga character of his. Let me point out that his production studio also innovated in the sense of pushing “limited animation” further than other studios. Tezuka Productions was able to meet television deadlines and work with a tiny budget in part by radically reducing the number of frames that had to be drawn (using few mouth movements, re-using flying scenes, and relying on dramatic poses rather than detailed action, etc.).

This produced relatively poor quality animation, at least, poor in comparison to Disney’s full animation, but, as Tom Lamarre argues in his book Anime Machine, certainly even limited animation was and is artful in its own way. Still, the legacy of slight embarrassment continues today: When I interviewed Japanese animators and asked them what made Japanese animation distinctive, I often heard, “Well, it’s not very animated, is it?”

Even so, with Astro Boy, the series was a huge success. This solidified the notion in Japan that even relatively poor animation could be popular, especially if it relied on already-popular manga characters. To this day, about 60% of Japanese animation is based on popular characters.

Japan also has a much larger comic book universe compared to the US, constituting about 40 percent of the units sold, and 20 percent of the value of Japanese publishing overall. Manga is read by children, teens and adults, even as it increasingly moves online and into mobile phones.

Manga is famous for generally having more sex and violence than comics in the US, and there is a historical reason for that. As David Hajdu describes in his book The Ten-Cent Plague, in the 1950s, America was rallied to protect children from salacious and gritty comic books in part by the research of psychiatrist Frederic Wertham, whose 1954 book The Seduction of the Innocent found comic books harmful to kids. US publishers at the time responded by setting up the Comics Code Authority, which required comic books to be suitable for children. There were always doubts about Wertham’s research, and recently more evidence has emerged showing a misuse and even falsification of data (see, for example, this coverage )

In Japan, there have been outcries against troubling comic book material, but in general, a wider range of manga is readily available and continues to attract enormous readership. This variety lends itself to a diversity of source material for anime as well.

Arguably, fan participation has played a larger role in the history of anime than is the case with TV cartoons in the US. To take one example, the giant robot TV series Gundam, which began airing in 1979, was initially deemed a failure due to low viewership and poor sales of toys. Over time, however, amateur activity around the series grew, as fans created encyclopedias and timelines extending the fictional world of the series. Importantly, the Gundam producers did not object to these extensions, and eventually the series was revived, and has become one of the longest-running and most successful series of all time.

This kind of fan activity remains part of the bedrock of anime’s success, and can be seen in other media forms as well. Japan’s largest annual convention is Comic Market held each year in August, and it draws almost half a million people over three days to buy and sell fan-made comics (often with unauthorized uses of copyrighted characters). Miku is a virtual singer made popular through crowd-sourced production, where some people make music and others make the music videos, for example.

The concept, “media mix,” seems central to the project of both of your books. What does this term imply about the ways popular culture is produced, marketed, distributed, and consumed in Japan?

Marc: The media mix is really central to how media operate in Japan. One of reasons I call my book Anime’s Media Mix is because ever since the beginning of television anime in 1963, the media mix has been central for anime’s very existence.

Betting that TV stations would refuse to pay the actual costs of production of a 30-minute animated TV show, Tezuka Osamu sold Astro Boy at a loss. He figured he’d make back the money on licensing fees for character goods – what we’d now call franchising – and international sales. So anime depends on other media (from toys to comics to video games) for its very survival.

The media mix is anime’s life support system. In turn anime grabs audiences that wouldn’t otherwise read a comic, or a novel, expanding the fan base. So ultimately there’s a kind of virtuous circle between the financial side of things and the fan side of things. As time moved on, and especially into the 1980s and 1990s, these grew closer and closer together. In the end it is rare to have a stand-alone cultural product, at least in the spheres considered “subcultural” in Japan, like comics, animation and light novels.

The media mix practice has even become central to “mainstream” areas like live-action films and TV dramas, especially since the 2000s.

Ian: I like the idea that the “media mix is anime’s life support system.” One of the questions I think about is, who supports the media mix? Whose activities bring this “media mix” to life?

As a cultural anthropologist, I like to draw more attention to the people, both professional producers and amateur creators, who form a nexus of collaborative creativity. The outcome is the “media mix,” but to ask about collaboration brings about a slightly different focus, in my opinion.

Like you, Henry, I too am interested in “spreadable media,” but I guess I see the impetus in the people who do the spreading, rather than being a function of the media object itself. (Editor's Note: I would have said that the focus of our Spreadable Media book is on the community that is circulating the content and the ways the content functions as social currency in their interactions with each other. So I don't think we are actually disagreeing here.) Granted, there is something amazing about Susan Boyle’s rise to stardom, and a lot of that has to do with her superior singing talent. It’s interesting as well, however, that her fans found something worth sharing and reached out to friends and colleagues to push interest in her even farther than the TV show alone could.

 

What relationship exists between “media mix” and the western concept of “transmedia storytelling”? How has the emergence of “media mix” changed the nature of storytelling in Japan?

Marc: This question about the relationship between media mix and transmedia storytelling is an important one. On the one hand I see Japan’s media ecology as really central to the conceptualization of transmedia storytelling. I think back to what I think is a key chapter of your book, Convergence Culture, where you analyze The Matrix as a key example of transmedia. As you point out, the Wachowskis develop the conception of The Matrix expanded universe on the way back from Japan, and you point out how influential the Japanese model of dispersing content across media was to them.

The conception of an expanded world which consumers access part by part was developed in Japan around Kadokawa Books by Kadokawa Tsuguhiko, Otsuka Eiji, Mizuno Ryo, Sato Tatsuo, Inoue Shin’ichiro and others in the late 80s and early 90s. These magazine editors and media creators associated with Kadokawa effectively shifted from being authors to being media mix producers. Otsuka, Mizuno and others create manga, or write novels – MPD Psycho and Record of the Lodoss War being two of their most renown works, respectively – but most importantly they oversee the production of various media incarnations or fragments of a whole. They were also keen to include fans as part of this, leaving holes in the narratives for fans to fill in.

Gainax’s Evangelion – funded and then published in part by Kadokawa – is an excellent example of this kind of media mix. Storytelling became focused not on development in a single medium, but around the development of a world or series of narratives across media. So I see the more recent emphasis on transmedia in North America especially as at least partly influenced by media mix practice from Japan.

Of course the twist to this narrative is that Kadokawa Tsuguhiko and others were deeply influenced by the table top role playing game (TRPG) model – where a preexisting world could be developed across multiple works. They give Dungeons and Dragons and the Dragonlance series of books that used D&D as a basis as an example.And in an early theorization of Kadokawa media mix practice, Otsuka analogizes the producer position to the TRPG “game master.” So there’s definitely a kind of mutual influence going on.

On the other hand, and this brings us back to some of what Ian said a moment ago about the importance of the popularity of characters, there are debates as to just how central narrative is to the media mix. Azuma Hiroki’s Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals makes the case that from the late 90s through the early 2000s there is a decline in “grand narratives” and an increasing centrality of non-narrative characters in the media mix. Basically he revives the postmodern thesis about the decline in grand narratives to apply it to developments in anime, manga, and games.

And it’s true, there are a lot of character-based works that don’t have much emphasis on narrative at all. Lucky Star comes to mind, and so does Ian’s discussion of Hatsune Miku. But we can think a little more historically about this too. Hello Kitty is one of the most successful characters of all time, but narrative was only an afterthought, and generally unimportant to what is for all intents and purposes a hugely successful media mix.

Ian and I both make the case that characters and worlds come first, and narratives are often built subsequently to the characters and worlds. Again, I think Japan is an important precursor to the recent trend towards world-building in Hollywood that you’ve highlighted, Henry. So there is an important connection between transmedia storytelling and the media mix.

But the media mix is not always about storytelling. That said I personally find the development of narratives across media a particularly interesting way of using the affordances of Japan’s rich media ecology to create fascinating story worlds. And I’m personally intrigued by the high tolerance for inconsistencies or divergences in media mix worlds that I find in Japan, much more than in North American models of transmedia. /blockquote>

Ian: I agree completely. I experienced this ambiguity around storytelling in an unusual way during fieldwork in Tokyo when a colleague invited me to meet with some producers from Bandai Visual to hear about their then-forthcoming series Code Geass. They spent an hour describing the characters and world of the series, but never talked about the story. I left the meeting thinking, “I still have no idea what happens in the series.” My Japanese friend was surprised at my confusion. “They probably haven’t written the story yet,” he noted.

For them, the key part of the planning was the characters and the worlds, which ideally would be spun off into a range of stories. The design is much more about characters and the rules of the world.

Ian Condry is professor of media and cultural studies in Comparative Media Studies at MIT.  He is the author of The Soul of Anime:  Collaborative Creativity and Japan's Media Success Story (Duke U Press, 2013).  The book explores ethnographically the global spread of Japanese animation, from fieldwork in Tokyo's studios to participation in fan conventions in the US.  His first book, Hip-Hop Japan: Rap and the Paths of Cultural Globalization (Duke U Press, 2006), analyzes the way rap music took root in Japan.  His research focuses on "globalization from below," that is, cultural movements that succeed, despite skepticism from elites.  He is the founder and organizer of the MIT/Harvard Cool Japan research project, which examines the cultural connections, dangerous distortions and critical potential of popular culture.  More info:  http://iancondry.com

Marc Steinberg is assistant professor of Film Studies at Concordia University, Montreal. He is the author of Anime’s Media Mix: Franchising Toys and Characters in Japan (University of Minnesota Press, 2012), and has published essays on anime, franchising and digital media in Japan ForumAnimation: An Interdisciplinary Journal,ParachuteJournal of Visual CultureTheory, Culture & Society, Mechademia, and Canadian Journal of Film Studies. Continuing the study of the media mix, his current research project explores the close relation between “contents” and “platforms” in Japanese media industry discourse and practice, from the 1980s to the present.

How to Watch Television: The Walking Dead

Today, I want to showcase the launch of an exciting new book, How to Watch Television, edited by Ethan Thompson and Jason Mittell. The editors recognized a gap in the field of television studies between the kinds of essays we ask our students to write (often close readings focused on specific episodes) and the kinds of exemplars we provide them from scholarly publications (often theory-dense, focused on making much larger arguments, and making moves which it is hard for undergrads or early graduate students to match). Contributors, myself among them, were asked to focus on specific episodes of specific programs, to do a close analysis with limited amounts of fancy theoretical footwork, and to demonstrate the value of a particular analytic approach to understanding how television works. Thompson and Mittell brought together a who's who of contemporary television studies writers and encouraged them to write about a broad array of programs. You can get a sense of the project as a whole by reading the table of contents. I have only read a few of the essays so far, having just recently gotten my author's copy, but so far, the book more than lives up to its promise. I. TV Form: Aesthetics and Style

1. Homicide: Realism – Bambi L. Haggins

2. House: Narrative Complexity – Amanda D. Lotz

3. Life on Mars: Transnational Adaptation – Christine Becker

4. Mad Men: Visual Style – Jeremy G. Butler

5. Nip/Tuck: Popular Music – Ben Aslinger

6. Phineas & Ferb: Children’s Television – Jason Mittell

7. The Sopranos: Episodic Storytelling – Sean O’Sullivan

8. Tim and Eric’s Awesome Show, Great Job!: Metacomedy – Jeffrey Sconce

II. TV Representations: Social Identity and Cultural Politics

9. 24: Challenging Stereotypes – Evelyn Alsultany

10. The Amazing Race: Global Othering – Jonathan Gray

11. The Cosby Show: Representing Race – Christine Acham

12. The Dick Van Dyke Show: Queer Meanings – Quinn Miller

13. Eva Luna: Latino/a Audiences – Hector Amaya

14. Glee/House Hunters International: Gay Narratives – Ron Becker

15. Grey’s Anatomy: Feminism – Elana Levine

16. Jersey Shore: Ironic Viewing – Susan J. Douglas

III. TV Politics: Democracy, Nation, and the Public Interest

17. 30 Days: Social Engagement – Geoffrey Baym and Colby Gottert

18. America’s Next Top Model: Neoliberal Labor – Laurie Ouellette

19. Family Guy: Undermining Satire – Nick Marx

20. Fox & Friends: Political Talk – Jeffrey P. Jones

21. M*A*S*H: Socially Relevant Comedy – Noel Murray

22. Parks and Recreation: The Cultural Forum – Heather Hendershot

23. Star Trek: Serialized Ideology – Roberta Pearson

24. The Wonder Years: Televised Nostalgia – Daniel Marcus

IV. TV Industry: Industrial Practices and Structures

25. Entertainment Tonight: Tabloid News – Anne Helen Petersen

26. I Love Lucy: The Writer-Producer – Miranda J. Banks

27. Modern Family: Product Placement – Kevin Sandler

28. Monday Night Football: Brand Identity – Victoria E. Johnson

29. NYPD Blue: Content Regulation – Jennifer Holt

30. Onion News Network: Flow – Ethan Thompson

31. The Prisoner: Cult TV Remakes – Matt Hills

32. The Twilight Zone: Landmark Television – Derek Kompare

V. TV Practices: Medium, Technology, and Everyday Life

33. Auto-Tune the News: Remix Video – David Gurney

34. Battlestar Galactica: Fans and Ancillary Content – Suzanne Scott

35. Everyday Italian: Cultivating Taste – Michael Z. Newman

36. Gossip Girl: Transmedia Technologies – Louisa Stein

37. It’s Fun to Eat: Forgotten Television – Dana Polan

38. One Life to Live: Soap Opera Storytelling – Abigail De Kosnik

39. Samurai Champloo: Transnational Viewing – Jiwon Ahn

40. The Walking Dead: Adapting Comics – Henry Jenkins

You can order it at the NYU Press website, along with previewing the introduction or requesting a review copy for faculty thinking about adopting it in a class. You can also order it on Amazon. Or please request it at an independent bookstore near you, if you’ve got one.

Thompson and Mitell have shrewdly offered those of us who have blogs the chance to share our own essays from the collection with the idea of helping to build up the buzz around this promising release.  Spreadability at work! So, I am happy to share today my musings about The Walking Dead, written after the end of Season 1. (Don't get me started about the speed of academic publishing: by normal standards, this one had a pretty rapid turnaround, but we still lag behind any other mode of publication. This is why I so value sites like Flow,In Media Res, and Antenna.)

 

The Walking Dead: Adapting Comics

Henry Jenkins

Abstract: One of the key ways that television connects to other media is by adapting pre-existing properties from films, comics, and other formats. Henry Jenkins uses one of the most popular of such recent adaptations, The Walking Dead, to highlight the perils and possibilities of adaptations, and how tapping into pre-existing fanbases can pose challenges to television producers.

The comic book industry now functions as Hollywood's research and development department, with a growing number of media properties inspired by graphic novels, including not only superhero films (Green Lantern, X-Men: First Class, Thor) and both live-action and animated television series (Smallville, The Bold and the Brave), but also films from many other genres (A History of Violence, American Splendor, 20 Days of Night, Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World). There are many possible explanations for Hollywood’s comic book fixation:

 

1. DC and Marvel are owned by Warner Brothers and Disney, respectively, who cherry pick what they think will satisfy mass audience interests.

 

2. Comics-based stories are to contemporary cinema what magazine short stories were to Classical Hollywood—more or less presold material.

 

3. Hardcore comics readers fall into a highly desired demographic—teen and twentysomething males—who have abandoned television in recent years for other media.

 

4. Comic books are a visual medium, offering something like a storyboard establishing basic iconography and visual practices to moving image media.

 

5. Digital special effects have caught up to comic’s most cosmic storytelling, allowing special effects houses to expand their technical capacities.

 

6. Contemporary television and comics involve a complex mix of the episodic and the serial, deploying long-form storytelling differently from most films or novels.

 

7. The streamlined structure of comics offer emotional intensification closely aligned with contemporary screen practices.

 

Despite such claims, comic adaptations often radically depart from elements popular with their original comics-reading audience. Mainstream comics readership has been in sharp decline for several decades: today’s top-selling title reaches fewer than a hundred thousand readers per month—a drop in the bucket compared with the audiences required for cable success, let alone broadcast networks. Some graphic novels have moved from specialty shops to chain bookstores, attracting a “crossover” readership, including more women and more “casual” fans. Adapting a comic for film or television often involves building on that “crossover” potential rather than addressing hardcore fans, stripping away encrusted mythology.

AMC's The Walking Dead (2010-present) is a notable exception, establishing its reputation as "faithful" to the spirit if not the letter of the original, even while introducing its original characters, themes, and story world to a new audience. Robert Kirkman’s comic series was a key example of the crossover readership graphic novels can find at mainstream bookstores. Kirkman has freely acknowledged his debts to George Romero’s Living Dead films, while others note strong parallels with 28 Days Later. The Walking Dead’s success with crossover readers and Kirkman’s reliance on formulas from other commercially successful franchises in the genre explain why producers felt they could remain “true” to the comics while reaching a more expansive viewership.

Using “Wildfire,” the fifth episode from The Walking Dead’s first season, I will explore what aspects of the comic reached television, what changes occurred, and why hardcore fans accepted some changes and not others. As a longtime Walking Dead reader, I am well situated to explore fan response to shifts in the original continuity.

To understand what The Walking Dead meant to comics readers, one might well start with its extensive letter column. Here, dedicated fans ask questions and offer opinions about every major plot development. Kirkman established a deeply personal relationship with his fans, sharing behind the scenes information about his efforts to get the series optioned and then developed for television, responding to reader controversies, and discussing the comic’s core premises and genre conventions (“the rules”). Kirkman summarized his goals in the first Walking Dead graphic novel:

With The Walking Dead, I want to explore how people deal with extreme situations and how these events CHANGE them.... You guys are going to get to see Rick change and mature to the point that when you look back on this book you won’t even recognize him....I hope to show you reflections of your friends, your neighbors, your families, and yourselves, and what their reactions are to the extreme situations on this book... This is more about watching Rick survive than it is about watching Zombies pop around the corner and scare you.....The idea behind The Walking Dead is to stay with the character, in this case, Rick Grimes for as long as is humanly possible....The Walking Dead will be the zombie movie that never ends.[1]

If, as Robin Wood formulated, the horror genre examines how normality is threatened by the monstrous, Kirkman’s focus is less on the monstrous and more on human costs.[2] The comic’s artwork (originally by Tony Moore but mostly by Charlie Adlard) offers gorehounds detailed renderings of rotting faces (lovingly recreated for the television series by makeup artist Greg Nicotero) and blood splattering as humans and zombies battle, but it is also focused on melodramatic moments, as human characters struggle to maintain normality in the face of the monstrous. This merger of horror and melodrama may explain why, despite its gore, The Walking Dead comics appeal almost as much to female readers as it does to the men who constitute the core comics market. Early on, some fans criticized the comic’s shambling “pace,” going several issues without zombie encounters. However, once they got a taste of Kirkman’s storytelling, many realized how these scenes contributed to the reader’s deeper investment in the characters’ plights.

Given his intimate and ongoing relationship with readers, Kirkman’s participation as an executive producer on the television adaptation was key for establishing credibility with his long-term readers. Series publicity tapped Kirkman’s street cred alongside AMC’s own reputation for groundbreaking, character-focused television dramas (Mad Men, Breaking Bad) and the reputations of executive producers Frank Darabont (The Green Mile, The Shawshank Redemption) and Gale Anne Hurd (Aliens, The Abyss, The Terminator franchise) with filmgoers, establishing an aura of exceptionality.

The Walking Dead was a key discussion topic at the 2010 San Diego Comic-Con, a gathering of more than 200,000 influential fans. Posters, specifically produced for the convention, compared the television characters with their comic book counterparts. The trade room display reconstructed an iconic comic location, a farmhouse where a family had killed themselves rather than change into zombies. Both tactics reaffirmed that the series was closely based on the comics. And Kirkman was front and center, promising fans the series would capture the essence of his long-articulated vision. If the producers won the hearts of the hardcore fans, they might count on them to actively rally viewers for the series premiere. Thanks, in part, to the fan support in spreading the word and building enthusiasm, The Walking Dead broke all ratings records for basic cable for its debut episode and broke them again with the launch of Season 2.

By the time The Walking Dead reached the air, Kirkman had produced and published 12 full-length graphic novels, representing more than 70 issues. Yet, the first season of the television series only covered the first six issues. On the one hand, this expansive narrative offered a rich roadmap. On the other, it threatened to lock the producers down too much, making it hard for the series to grow on its own terms. Speaking at the Paleyfest in Los Angeles after season one, Kirkman acknowledged that exploring different paths through the material allowed him to explore roads not taken in his own creative process.

The challenge was to give veteran fans recognizable versions of the established characters and iconic moments. Fans must be able to follow the story structure in broad outlines, even as the producers were changing major and minor plot points, adding new themes and character moments. The audience anticipated that any changes would be consistent with Kirkman’s oft-articulated “ground rules” and yet the producers wanted the freedom to take the story in some new directions. The Walking Dead had built its reputation for surprising its readers in every issue—any character could die at any moment and taboos could be shattered without blinking an eye. How could the television series have that same impact if the most dedicated fans already knew what was going to happen next?

“Wildfire” was perhaps season one’s most emotionally powerful episode, where many core themes came into sharpest focus. It was based upon the final chapter of the first graphic novel, which set the tone for the rest of the comics series. The episode includes several memorable moments from the comics, specifically the death of two major characters (Amy and Jim), yet also several shifts that hinted at how dramatically the producers had revised things. Fans embraced some of these changes, while others violated their collective sense of the franchise.

As “Wildfire” opens, the protagonists are recovering from a traumatic and abrupt zombie attack that killed several recurring characters and forced the survivors to confront the vulnerability of their encampment, preparing them to seek a new “home” elsewhere, a recurring quest in the comics. The attack’s basic outline remains consistent with the graphic novel. For example, Amy gets caught by surprise when she separates from the others, while Jim gets chomped in the ensuing battle. The brutal attack disrupts a much more peaceful “fish fry” scene, which provides an excuse for characters to reveal bits of their backstory. The ruthless battle shows how each character has begun to acquire self-defense and survival skills.

Yet, a central emotional incident, Andrea’s prolonged watch over her dead sister Amy’s body, occupied only two panels of Kirkman’s original comic. There, Andrea tells Dale, “I can’t let her come back like that,” capturing the dread of a loved one transforming into the undead. The television series used this line as a starting point for a much more elaborated character study, built across several episodes as the two sisters, a decade-plus apart in age in this version (though not in the original), offer each other physical and emotional support. The two sisters talk in a boat about the family tradition of fishing and how their father responded to their different needs. Andrea plans to give Amy a birthday present, telling Dale that she was never there for her sister’s birthdays growing up. The image of Andrea unwrapping the present and hanging the fishing lure around her dead sister’s neck represents the melodramatic payoff fans expect from The Walking Dead in whatever medium. The expansion of this incident into a prolonged melodramatic sequence has to do both with issues of modality (the range of subtle facial expressions available to a performer working in live action as opposed to the compression required to convey the same emotional effect through static images) and AMC’s branding as  network known for “complex narratives,” “mature themes,” and “quality acting.”

 “Wildfire” shows Andrea protecting Amy’s body as the others seek to convince her to allow her sister to be buried, We hear the sounds of picks thrashing through the skulls of other zombies in the background and watch bodies being prepared to burn. And, finally, Amy returns to life for a few seconds. Andrea looks intently into Amy’s eyes, looking for any signs of human memory and consciousness, stroking her sister’s face as Amy’s gasps turn into animalistic grunts. The producers play with these ambiguities through their use of makeup: Amy is more human-looking compared to the other zombies, where the focus is on their bones, teeth and muscle rather than their eyes, flesh and hair. In the end, Andrea shoots her sister with the pistol she’s been clutching, an act of mercy rather than violence.

Much of the sequence is shot in tight close-ups, focusing attention all the more closely on the character’s reactions. This is the first time the television series has shown us humans transition into zombies. Several issues after this point in the story (issue 11), the comic revisits this theme with a troubling story of Hershel, a father who has kept his zombie daughter chained and locked in a barn, unable to accept the irreversibility of her fate (an incident which was enacted on screen near the climax of the series’s second season). Here, Andrea’s willingness to dispatch Amy is a sign of her determination to live.

The comic explores Jim’s death, by contrast, in more depth. Jim’s family had been lost in a previous zombie attack: Jim was able to escape because the zombies were so distracted eating his other family members. The book’s Jim is a loner who has not forged intimate bonds with the others, but who aggressively defends the camp during the zombie attack. In the comic, Jim is so overwrought with guilt and anger that he smashes one zombie’s skull to a pulp. In the television series, this action is shifted onto an abused wife who undergoes a cathartic breakdown while preparing her dead husband for burial. On the one hand, this shift gave a powerful payoff for a new subplot built on the comic’s discussion of how the zombie attacks had shifted traditional gender politics and on the other, it allowed a tighter focus on Jim’s slow acceptance of the prospect of becoming a zombie.

In both media, Jim initially hides the reality of being bitten from the other campers. Finally, he breaks down when someone notices his wounds. While the producers used the comic as a visual reference for this iconic moment, there are also substantial differences in the staging, including the shift of the bite from Jim’s arm to his stomach and the ways the other campers manhandle him to reveal the bite.

Jim’s story conveys the dread with which a bitten human begins preparing for a transformation into a zombie. In both the comic and the television series, Jim asks to be left, propped up against a tree so that he might rejoin his family when the inevitable change comes. Here, again, the television series elaborates on these basic plot details, prolonging his transformation to show the conflicting attitudes of the other campers to his choice. The television series is far more explicit than the comic about parallels with contemporary debates about the right of the terminally ill to control the terms of their own death.

In both sets of changes highlighted here, the television series remains true to the spirit of the original comic if not to the letter—especially in its focus on the processes of mourning and loss and the consequences of violence, both often overlooked in traditional horror narratives. Both represent elaborations and extensions of elements from the original book. And both link these personal narratives with the community’s collective experience, as in the scene where many from the camp say goodbye to Jim as he lies against a tree awaiting his fate. Some offer him comfort, others walk past unable to speak.

On the other hand, two other “Wildfire” plotlines represent more decisive breaks with the comics—the confrontation between Shane and Rick and the introduction of the Center for Disease Control. Rick had been cut off from his wife and son when Shane, his best friend, helped them escape, while Rick was lying comatose in the hospital. Believing Rick dead, Laurie and Shane couple until Rick finds his way back to his family. In Kirkman’s original, Dale warns Rick that Shane made advances on Laurie. In the television series, Rick has no idea of the potential infidelity, but the audience knows that Shane and Laurie have made love. In the graphic novel, the two men go out to the woods to have it out. In the final panels of the first graphic novel, Shane attempts to kill Rick and is shot in the head by Rick’s 8-year-old son, Carl. The boy collapses in his father’s arms and says, “It’s not the same as killing the dead ones, Daddy.” Rick responds, “It never should be, Son. It never should be.”

In “Wildfire,” tension mounts throughout the episode as the two men clash over what the group should do next. Both turn to Laurie for moral support, which she is unable to offer, instead saying, “Neither one of you were entirely wrong.” In the television version, Shane initially mistakes Rick for a deer in the woods until he has his friend in his gun sights and then finds himself unable to draw down. Dale, rather than Carl, comes upon the two men, ending Shane’s moral dilemma. When he returns from the woods, Shane seems ready to accept Rick’s leadership. Shane’s survival represents a decisive shift from the original, though by the season’s end, its ramifications were not clear. Perhaps this is a case where Kirkman saw unrealized potentials that, given a chance, he wanted to mine more deeply.

But, in removing Carl from the scene, the television producers could be accused of pulling punches, given how central the sequence of the young boy shooting the adult male (and its refusal to engage in sentimental constructions of childhood innocence) had been in the comic’s initial reception. Carl’s repeated brushes with violence, and his willingness to take action when adults hesitate, is a recurring motif throughout the books. If the comics often shocked readers by abruptly killing off long established characters, here the producers surprised some viewers by refusing to kill a character whose death represented an early turning point in the comics.

The visit to the Center for Disease Control, which is introduced in the closing scenes of “Wildfire” and becomes the focus for the season’s final episode, “TS-19,” has no direct counterpart in the comic book series. One of the hard and fast rules Kirkman established in the comics was that he was never going to provide a rational explanation for how the zombie outbreak occurred. As Kirkman argues in an early letter column:

 

As far as the explanation for the zombies go, I think that aside from the zombies being in the book, this is a fairly realistic story, and that’s what makes it work. The people do real things, and it’s all very down to Earth... almost normal. ANY explanation would be borderline science fiction... and it would disrupt the normalness. In my mind, the story has moved on. I’m more interested in what happens next then what happened before that caused it all.[3]

One reason Kirkman has Rick in a coma at the comic series start is so that the audience is not exposed to the inevitable theorizing which would surround a society coping with such a catastrophe. ( A web series, produced for the launch of the second season, further explored what had happened when Rick was in his coma, offering a range of contradictory possible explanations for the zombie epidemic.)

Many fans were anxious about the introduction of the CDC subplot, which implied a medical explanation. At the same time, the closing scenes at the CDC also represent the first time we’ve cut away from Rick or the other members of his party to see another perspective on the unfolding events (in this case, that of a exhausted and suicidal scientist). For both reasons, many fans saw this subplot as another dramatic break with the spirit of the comic.

And it came at an unfortunate moment—at the end of the abbreviated first season, as the last taste before an almost year-long hiatus. If the series’ publicity and presentation had largely reassured long time readers that the series would follow the established “rules,” these final developments cost the producers some hard-won credibility, especially when coupled with news that the production company had fired most of the staff writers who worked on the first season, that AMC was reducing the budget per episode for the series, and that producer Frank Darbout was also leaving under duress.

By this point, The Walking Dead was the biggest ratings success in AMC’s history, leaving many comics fans to worry whether their support was still necessary for the series’ success. It would not be the first time that a series acknowledged a cult audience’s support only long enough to expand its following, and then pivoted to focus on the new viewers who constituted the bulk of its rating points.

As this Walking Dead example suggests, there is no easy path for adapting this material for the small screen. There are strong connections between the ways seriality works in comics and television, but also significant differences that make a one-to-one mapping less desirable than it might seem. Television producers want to leave their own marks on the material by exploring new paths to occasionally surprise their loyal fans. The challenge is how to make these adjustments consistent not with the details of the original stories, but with their “ground rules,” the underlying logic, and one good place to look to watch this informal “contract” between reader and creators take shape is through the letter columns published in the back of the comics. It is through this process that the producers can help figure out what they owe to the comics and to their readers.

Further Reading

Gordon, Ian, Mark Jancovich, and Matthew P. McAllister, eds.  Film and Comic Books 

(Jackson:  University Press of Mississippi, 2007)

Jones, Matthew T.  Found in Translation:  Structural and Cognitive Aspects of the Adaptation of Comic Art to Film (Saarbrücken:  VDM Verlag, 2009)

Pustz, Matthew. Comic Book Culture: Fan Boys and True Believers (Jackson, MI: University Press of Mississippi, 2000).

 


[1] Robert Kirkman, The Walking Dead Vol. 1: Days Gone By (New York: Image, 2006).

[2] Robin Wood, “An Introduction to the American Horror Film,” in Bill Nichols (ed.) Movies and Methods vol. 2 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985), 195-220.

[3] Robert Kirkman, “Letter Hacks,” The Walking Dead 8, July 2004.

 

 

A Whale Of A Tale!: Ricardo Pitts-Wiley Brings Mixed Magic to LA

Last February, I announced here the release of Reading in a Participatory Culture, a print book, and Flows of Reading, a d-book extension, both focused around work my teams (first at MIT and then at USC) have done exploring how we might help educators and students learn about literary works through actively remixing them. Our central case study has been the work of playwright-actor-educator Ricardo Pitts-Wiley from the Mixed Magic Theater, who was successful at getting incarcerated youth to read and engage with Herman Melville's Moby-Dick by having them re-imagine and re-write it for the 21st century. You can read more about this project here. And you can check out the Flows of Reading d-book for free here. 
If you live in Los Angeles, you have a chance to learn more about Pitts-Wiley and his work first hand. I've been able to bring Ricardo for a residency at USC this fall, which will start with a public event at the Los Angeles Public Library on September 26. Ricardo is going to be recruiting a mixed race cast of high school and college aged actors from across the Los Angeles area and producing a staged reading of his play, Moby-Dick: Then and Now, which will be performed as part of a USC Visions and Voices event on Oct. 11th. You can get full details of both events below. I hope to see some of you there. We are already hearing from all kinds of artists here in Southern California who have sought creative inspiration from Melville's novel and used it as a springboard for their own work. But you don't have to love the great white whale to benefit from our approach to teaching traditional literary works in a digital culture, and we encourage teachers and educators of all kinds to explore how they might apply our model to thinking about many other cultural texts.
For those who live on the East Coast, our team will also be speaking and doing workshops at the National Writing Project's national conference in Boston on Nov. 21.
Thursday, September 26, 2013 7:15 PM
Mark Taper Auditorium-Central Library
Thu, Sep 26, 7:15 PM [ALOUD]
Remixing Moby Dick: Media Studies Meets the Great White Whale 
Henry Jenkins, Wyn Kelley, and Ricardo Pitts-Wiley

Over a multi-year collaboration, playwright and director Ricardo Pitts-Wiley, Melville scholar Wyn Kelley, and media expert Henry Jenkins have developed a new approach for teaching Moby-Dick in the age of YouTube and hip-hop. They will explore how "learning through remixing" can speak to contemporary youth, why Melville might be understood as the master mash-up artist of the 19th century, and what might have happened if Captain Ahab had been a 21st century gang leader.

* Part of the Library Foundation of Los Angeles and Los Angeles Public Library’s month-long citywide initiative "What Ever Happened to Moby Dick?"

 

Henry Jenkins is Provost's Professor of Communication, Journalism, and Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California. He has written and edited more than fifteen books on media and popular culture, including Spreadable Media: Creating Meaning and Value in a Networked Culture with Sam Ford and Joshua Green. His other published works reflect the wide range of his research interests, touching on democracy and new media, the “wow factor” of popular culture, science-fiction fan communities, and the early history of film comedy. His most recent book, Reading in a Participatory Culture: Remixing Moby-Dick for the Literature Classroom was written with Wyn Kelley, Katie Clinton, Jenna McWilliams, Erin Reilly, and Ricardo Pitts-Wiley.

Wyn Kelley teaches in the Literature Section at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and is author of Melville's City: Literary and Urban Form in Nineteenth-Century New York and of Herman Melville: An Introduction. She also co-author Reading in a Participatory Culture: Re-Mixing Moby-Dick in the English Classroom with Henry Jenkins and Ricardo Pitts-Wiley. She is former Associate Editor of the Melville Society journal Leviathan, and editor of the Blackwell Companion to Herman Melville. A founding member of the Melville Society Cultural Project, she has collaborated with the New Bedford Whaling Museum on lecture series, conferences, exhibits, and a scholarly archive. She serves as Associate Director ofMEL (Melville Electronic Library), an NEH-supported interactive digital archive for reading, editing, and visualizing Melville’s texts.

Ricardo Pitts-Wiley is the co-founder of the Mixed Magic Theatre, a non-profit arts organization dedicated to presenting a diversity of cultural and ethnic images and ideas on the stage. While serving as Mixed Magic Theatre’s director, Pitts-Wiley gained national and international acclaim for his page-to-stage adaptation of Moby Dick, titled Moby Dick: Then and Now. This production, which was presented at the Kennedy Center for the Arts in Washington, DC, is the centerpiece of a national teachers study guide and is featured in the book, Reading in A Participatory Culture. In addition to his work as an adapter of classic literature Pitts-Wiley is also the composer of over 150 songs and the author of 12 plays with music including:Waiting for Bessie SmithCelebrations: An African Odyssey, andThe Spirit Warrior’s Dream.

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

Exchanging Letters HJ: I am very interested in the relationship which emerges between Akemi and Kabuki in Skin Deep and beyond. I find myself wanting to compare the core situation with the depiction of Evie's captivity in Alan Moore's V For Vendetta but also Nick Bantock's Griffin and Sabine books, which are told through a series of letters and postcards between the protagonists, one of whom may well be a figment of the other's imagination. I wondered if either of these offered an inspiration for this relationship and, if so, in what ways you rethought those situations for this story?

DM: Griffin and Sabine, I didn't see until later, when a friend of mine who was involved in the story told me about it. I appreciated what was happening there and how it related to what I had done in Kabuki. V For Vendetta and Watchmen were the other books that I read when I was 16. I could never escape what I learned from them in those really formative years.

There's also another story I read when I was very young called The Hiding Place. It was about people hiding out in Nazi Germany. A woman was imprisoned, and she only got two sheets of toilet paper per day. That was her ration. But people would use that toilet paper as barter systems. Some people would use them just to write on and to give other people. That directly corresponds with Akemi in Kabuki where Akemi is writing on sheets of toilet paper, folding it into origami, and dropping it through the vent, and Kabuki is responding the best she could.

I had a good friend Andy Lee at Washington University in St. Louis. I was very ordered about certain things, but he used a sort of Zen chaos that I started to incorporate. At two o' clock in the morning, he said, "I have class tomorrow. I have to turn in a story, so I've got to work on that." I said, "Oh, that's great! What's your story about?" And he said, "I have no idea. I haven't thought about it or started it at all." I said, "What?" He said, "I have to turn it in at 9 a.m." I said, "You haven't thought about it? You haven't written notes about it?" He said, "No, I have no idea. What do you think I should write, because I'm going to be writing all night until 9 a.m." I said, "Oh my goodness! This is ridiculous! That's not how I do things in my orderly fashion." He said, "Well, can you help me write it? If you write it, too, we can write twice as fast." And so I said, "The only way that two people can write a story twice as fast is if it's a story about you writing a letter to me and then me writing a letter to you. Here's what we'll do. We'll make two characters, and, that way, neither of us is dependent. We don't have to work anything out first. Here's the basic idea: I write a letter for your character, and then your character writes a letter back to me, and we'll go back and forth."

We wrote it all night along, and that became his fiction story. I wrote half of it from the character I created, and he wrote half from his, and it was so much fun. It was so spontaneous, and neither of us were tired because it was so ridiculous and fun. It made such perfect sense in the middle of the night that I thought I should do a comic book that way. That's how that issue came about, and it was a completely different way than I ever wrote a story before: an entire comic book just being these two people writing letters to each other.

HJ: Going back to origins of the novel, the epistolary form has a long history. Many of the early novels were exchanges of letters and diaries and so forth, out of which we come to know the characters and their relationships.

DM: I was probably ignorant of that at the time, but, since then, I really appreciate that idea. I named a chapter in Alchemy "Epistolary" because that issue was very much central to the story. The chapter became actual letters in envelopes. When I knew I was going to do this issue where Akemi is traveling the world and she's writing back to Kabuki, I told readers on message boards, "Send me your letters. Send me your stamps. I need stamps from all over the world." All these readers sent me hundreds of envelopes with stamps from a variety of countries, and some of them were so beautiful and such cleverly made envelopes, and the handwriting was on them in an interesting way, and the stamps, I think there were 10 different stamps on the same envelope from the Philippines. They were so beautiful. I used those actual envelopes and stamps that readers sent as a central piece of each page in the book and just covered their actual return address and put maybe Akemi or Kabuki. This kind of thing and made the fans an active creator of the pages of the story.

HJ: In the documentary The Alchemy of Art: David Mack, you talked about the Scrabble tiles you used in the Echo book in much the same way. They were submitted by readers, so it sounds like you have a kind of ongoing relationship with readers.

DM: I do, in a couple of different ways. Once they see you start using 3D objects, fabric and collage in your work, some of them just seem compelled to start sending you stuff" "I saw this. I thought it was interesting. Maybe you can use it for a page." I say thanks and, if I do, I'll put their name in the back of the book. There's been moments where it arrives just in time. There's a woman called Miss Fumiko in New York who sends me things a lot. I remember one time I was doing a Daredevil cover, and I wasn't quite happy with how it was going. Then, the mailman banged on the door. It was all these metal pieces from Miss Fumiko. I set them directly on the painting I was working on at that moment and said, "Oh, these are a great border for this page." In general, I get a lot of stuff in the mail that I put in a box and pull out when I'm doing a collage.

Also, these comics come out in serialized form first, and then it's different if you read The Alchemy as an entire collection versus if you read once and then wait two months for the next one to happen because that two months gives people time to speculate. If you read the whole collection, the entire story is right there, but the serialized form provides an interesting gestation period for readers to have. They read the first issue, and they say, "Oh, what does this mean? Who's that knocking on the door at the end of this issue? I think it's going to be this person, or could it be this person, or is this Akemi's intention, or is it really something else's?" They start speculating a lot. Sometimes, they'll speculate about things I hadn't thought about before, and I'll think that's an interesting idea to actually do or throw in as a red herring. I'll start getting ideas from reader speculation not as part of the main story points, but as a little something to deepen it a bit, to add more texture to the story.

Final Reflections

HJ: When I introduce your books to people, I often say they are to regular comics as poetry is to prose. I'm just wondering if you do see your work as sort of operating in a different register than some of the mainstream superhero comics?

DM: I think it's safe to say most of this stuff is different than the mainstream super hero stuff. I like that comparison. I don't remember who said it. Maybe it was Rimbaud who said that "poetry is the language of crisis," which I find a really interesting idea. I like the idea that poetry has spaces in it for the words to mean exactly what they're saying, but, at the same time, the words can mean something extra that you don't immediately see. It depends on what the reader sees, the life experience they have or what baggage they're bringing to it. I do try to encrypt that in the story. I do have a hierarchy of story structure where I want to get across what's actually happening in the story first and the clarity of that. But, second, there are other things in the story that probably won't be revealed on the first read but hopefully will be very rewarding on repeat readings.

You can get to those other levels in film and music, too, but I think it might be more nuanced in poetry because the images are so crystallized and concentrated. Each word is usually sparser but seems so much more packed with meaning next to another word also packed with meaning, next to another word packed with meaning that can unravel itself like DNA when you read it years later.

A lot of the things I like--whether it's music, film, or artwork--give me that sense that there's something I can totally relate to the first time I read it, no matter how old I am. When I'm a child, I read it and I love it. I hear the song. I love it. Ten years later, I experience that part again, and I like it for totally different reasons that I never saw before. I really like that kind of feeling, and I hear from readers that they sometimes get that feeling about reading my work, too.

One comparison I get is that readers say, "It takes me 10 minutes or 20 minutes to read a regular comic book. I read it, and I learn what happened in this chapter of their life, and then I move on to the next part. But, when I'm reading your comics, it takes me a really long time to read it because I like to savor every moment of it and read each word over and over and look at what's happening in the background." Then, they'll also say that, a year later, they read it again and get a completely different experience out of the second or third reading. I like that idea that, at a different part in your life, you can appreciate it for a different reason.

I've also had people come and tell me, "When I first read Kabuki, I hated it. When I first saw your artwork, I wasn't sure what to think of it. It made me feel weird." And then they'll come back and say, "I read it again, and now I love it. Now, it's my favorite thing." It reminds me of that experience I had as a kid with my first Frank Miller book. I was almost traumatized. Then, I read it three years later, and I thought, "This is fantastic." Now I get that kind of response.

THE END

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

The Reader and the Character HJ: In general, superhero art works to draw us into the action - and to thus intensify our sense of identification with the protagonist. Your work is far more focused on the emotional reactions of characters and, as such, pulls us deeper into their mental and emotional space. Yet, it is also challenging to read, deploying devices that are often described in art theory as producing some kind of distanciation. What kind of relationship do you want the reader to have to your images and the depicted actions?

DM: That's a really great point. I had this conversation with Brian Bendis. We've been best friends since 1993. We were getting into comics at the same time. We were both doing our early books, and we started to break into bigger books and get our own published around the same time. And we would often have good conversations about this kind of thing. When I was beginning Kabuki, Brian was working on Goldfish or Fire, around the time he was working at JINX. We talked about this idea, that when you're getting to know somebody, you're completely experiencing the external first. You're making judgments on how they look, how they move, their body language, what their reputation is, a lot of external stuff. The more you get to know somebody, the more internal that relationship is and the more you see somebody for who they really are past that veneer.

We were both discussing that that's what we want to make it like for our characters when you're reading our books. At the beginning, it would be very focused on external. If you look at the first volume of Kabuki, there's lots of cityscapes; you're in an external world. You get a sense of what the world is. You see the Kabuki character on TV screens before you ever meet her on in person, so you have all of this reputation and external cityscape. And, then, one of the next Kabuki volumes is inside a bare room. The setting of the story is completely different. Really, the setting is a character in the story. It gives you a clue of how to read the other characters. If you're seeing big cityscapes and everything's about what this world is, you're seeing the characters in an external way - through how they react in that city. But, when you're inside of the bare room, it's about bearing that person's soul and being inside their head, that kind of thing. Little by little, issue by issue, you get to know the character more. At first, it's in third-person narrative. Then, as you go forward, it becomes first person.

I would do that with logos and typefaces as well. Without mentioning it, I'll change the typeface. If the character undergoes changes to such a degree, now they use a different typeface. And I even changed the Kabuki logo without saying anything: this is an issue where I'll give you a stronger sense of connection with the character, hopefully, and hopefully you will be seeing things the way the character is seeing things.

I tried to do that with the Echo character to a degree also. There's a certain period at the beginning where we are seeing her in the context of Daredevil in the cityscape and then, eventually, you're inside her mind. I wanted you to be able to see things the way she is seeing things. A big consideration for me when I was writing Daredevil for the first time was, "Here's a character who's been around for many, many years, and people have done a lot of techniques to give you a sense of how to portray a blind man's world, his senses and how things felt. So I try to do that also in terms of the panel layouts and the way the words line up. I used graphic inventions to portray his unique point of view. I felt like Joe Quesada communicated that very well.

Because the Echo character is deaf, most of her understanding of the world is through sight. Her focus on visuals really translated very well to comics for me, and she gave me something to push against how Daredevil sees the world. They're both detectives in a way, deciphering--like we all are--all of their input, but in very different ways than most people are. I don't want Daredevil to be just like Spider-Man. He's blind, and you have to get the radar. I really wanted his other senses to be working in tandem with how you experience the comic. It was a great opportunity to have that contrasted by how Echo experienced things. So, when I was doing research for the story where she was growing up deaf. I read a lot of autobiographies of people who grew up deaf, and I was fascinated with this idea. I remember this story where a boy saw someone making a reference to the noise that the rain makes and the noise that goes along with lightning. And he thought, "I had no idea that the weather makes noise." He asks, "What noise does the sunshine make? What noise do the clouds make?' And you're like, "Wow." You really have to think.

So, Echo learns that her parents are moving their mouths, and that means something, and they're talking to her. When the dog's moving its mouth, is the dog talking, too? Are the birds talking? Do birds make noises? What are they saying? So there's this world that many readers don't have any access to. What sound does the rainbow make? What extra information am I missing from rainbows, and what information am I missing from lightning? What comes with the snow? I wanted you to be able to feel that from her growing up. Her skill-set comes from this kind of pattern recognition in terms of her growing up, trying to pay so much attention to every nuance of visual stimuli from body language to facial expressions to lip reading to the point where she's able to absorb this pattern recognition. If she sees someone play the piano, she can see the pattern recognition in the same way she can see that someone is saying a paragraph to her. If someone was dancing in a certain way, she has pattern recognition of that. She would be an incredible archeologist. She's like a Rosetta stone of just about anything, as long as it's visual. That's how I look at her skill-set.

HJ: In your writings, there is often a recurring set of references to issues of encryption and decipherment which seems closely connected to the complex visual language you deploy throughout your work. To what degree are such references intended to teach your readers how to process your images and stories?

DM: I love that about the nature of the comics. If you know what medium you're using to tell the story, really try to take advantage of what that medium is. I'm sure that, if I were doing Kabuki as a film, I would probably think of things in completely different ways. I'm not doing things on a page because I really like them in themselves, I'm really doing them as problem-solving as some kind of solution to communicate in the best way I can in that form. What's happening with this character in a way that correlates to how that medium communicates to you?

Parts of the Whole

HJ: Am I correct in thinking that many of the techniques you deploy come out of the Art Book movement? If so, can you talk a little about the relationship between the Art Book and the Comic?

DM: I made a lot of handmade books like that when I was in college. I love the idea of handmade books. I love books on their own. I love them as artifacts. I like that aspect of comics, too. I like that it's a physical piece that you can hold in your hand and turn. I do love artist books in that they have that texture page-for-page. My originals probably do resemble that to a certain degree, so it's a big change from the printed version. I'm able to have exhibits. I've been doing a traveling art exhibit of The Alchemy. I've resisted selling any of it, so I have the entire Alchemy story so that it can all be exhibited as one big story. There are larger pages, and you can see each page on its own as a piece of art but, also, if you want to read it, it has all the lettering. It's a completely different experience, reading it as a book itself.

HJ: There, the focus is on producing books as individual art objects, where-as you are producing comics which will be mass-produced and distributed. What do you see as the status of one of your pages? Is each page an art object on its own? What is the byproduct here - the page or the printed book?

DM: I like how you said that: the product and the by-product: the hierarchy. To be honest with you, neither of those is at the top of the hierarchy to me. I think they're both by-products. I don't think the original is the real art. I think that the real art of what happens isn't in the page; it is what happens in the reader's mind when they're connecting it. The actual art page and the printed version of it are really my best way of making a navigational instrument for the reader to complete that piece in their head.

The art of the page is as different from the real art as a map or an atlas is to the real geography. It's meant to guide you through, so I'm very focused on how someone looks at this page and use it as a jumping-off point. I want their mind, not the panels but their mind, to be moving--connecting things and adding to it, bringing their life experience to it, and completing it all in the mysteries of their head and connecting to it inside them. That's where the real art of comics are for me. When they're done right, when they're done at their best, the real story happens completely in the reader's head, and the comic itself is just a really fun artifact and by-product to get them there.

HJ: Your pages are published twice, first as part of the story and then in the Kabuki art books. Someone looks at the page very differently if they're following the story versus looking at it as a straight piece of artwork. I know it changes the way I look at the pages, Does knowing that you're going to do lead you to do the pages differently?

DM: It doesn't ahead of time, but it does after. In the process of making the page, I'm having a totally different experience probably than any reader is going to have. I probably can't have the same experience that the reader has, except occasionally when you come back to something years later and you've sort of forgotten about the process of making it, when you can be charmed by it to a degree. Other times, you can feel like you were a little heavy-handed or something, and you think, "Oh, this should've been finessed a certain way." It's like looking at somebody else's work. I can look at the first Kabuki volume I did. I was 20 years old, and I can be charmed by the rawness of it and the crudeness of it. It seems like a different person did it. And I feel like this isn't how I would write or do it at all. I would redo it. I can be charmed by that in retrospect, but I don't think that when I'm making it. When I'm including it in later, it's an opportunity to give people extra input into the stuff that I was thinking about in the process of making it. But it doesn't alter the way that I make the page knowing that I may also want to use it as a piece of art later or talk about it later. It is interesting to see a page or panel on its own in a book later. Sometimes, that's the influence of putting it in the book, I've come across it and may be struck by it on its own.

At first, you're in a mad rush to get everything on the deadline and everything synchronized and working together. Years later, you come across the page and you go, "Oh, this is really interesting! What was I even thinking?" Sometimes, you don't even remember how this happened. And, sometimes, it feels like you are a different person when you're seeing it. A different version of you did it.

Layers and Folds

HJ: One of the things that make it look like an artist's book is a collage-like aesthetic: the layering of physical things on top of the page, and so forth. Can you describe a little of your thinking of that technique and how it contributes to your work?

DM: Usually, it's problem solving. Sometimes, I'm not even planning that to begin with, and I'm trying to just make a hierarchy on the page, as you said. I'm trying to make something work. At a certain point, I'm going to step back from the way I was doing it and start placing things on top of it and moving around. I may not be sure if they work and then come back and look again, thinking it looks like it's too much and taking something away. But I like that contrast, the tension between the two-dimensional and the three-dimensional. If you have a two-dimensional image and add something three-dimensional to it, especially if it's not so much that you start thinking of it as completely separate, it really adds something that I wouldn't get from simply drawing. Sometimes, it almost validates in reality some of the stuff that's in there.

For instance, there was a scene in Chapter Two of The Alchemy story where somebody is making Kabuki a fake passport. I used an actual Japanese passport in there. She's getting these new artifacts, so I like having the real passport. Sometimes, I'll use photographs themselves. When you have a photograph versus something that's painted or drawn next to it, it creates extra tension. A photograph on a drawing is one stage up of reality. Then, you can add a three-dimensional object on top of that. So, if you're completely 3D and then add a photo and then a drawing, they all work together better than they would if it was just two of them .A lot of its just trial and error and problem-solving.

HJ: Part of the mix of 2D and 3D is the metaphor of origami which runs through Kabuki. That sort of reminds us that we're reading a page. We could, if we chose to, rip it out and fold it into origami, but it's a really expensive book, so we have to mentally fold it and try to imagine what shape it would produce.

DM: The nature of the story is talking about taking two-dimensional ideas and making a three-dimensional reality. It's this idea of art in action, synchronized. Ideas in books are not just ideas in books; that's not where they stay. Through some kind of imagination mitosis, ideas become something real that we live with. So I thought that was an interesting way to use panels in the story. I can take six panels and put them in the shape of a two-dimensional cube with dotted lines. You cut it out, and it gives you a sense that it's meant to be folded into something real. But it still acts as six individual squares--that sequential story--at the same time. That's my ode to the six-panel grid. It's like a very curvy, stylized, six-panel grid. On the very last panel of it, I give it sides so that it looks like a cube all of a sudden. It gives this idea of three-dimensionalizing the six-panel grid. Then, you have this drawn cube. It starts to unfold, and there's something inside it, and there's things coming out of it, and it folds back on itself.

Just with the nature of the six-panel grid in comics, there're boundless opportunities to how you can tell a story. Even starting with a conventional six-panel curvy S grid, you can have things fold inside and moving around. It's about the nature of how you read it. It's not really about what's on the paper itself. It's about this idea you don't have to cut out the cube and fold it into 3D. You've done it in your mind already. I think that's similar to the act of reading comics, and I think, story-wise, it's similar to the act of following an idea out into reality.

People often think ideas aren't real, but maybe they're some of "the most realest" things we have. If you just write an idea down on a piece of paper, suddenly it exists in the three-dimensional material world, and its sitting next to you. You can take that thing you wrote and type it up. You can send it to somebody, You can write a paper about it. All of a sudden, you've reached all these other people. It can influence their lives, and it becomes your life. The things that you're writing down and you're teaching, these ideas become your passport into a variety of different worlds. It can become your career. So, the origami was a metaphor for all of that. Beyond that, if you don't like the current ideas, you're obligated to offer your own idea, your own alternative. Each person has a responsibility of finding their culture instead of just buying their culture.

MORE TO COME

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

Kickstarting Veronica Mars: A Conversation About the Future of Television (Part Three)

Henry Jenkins: Suzanne, I share some of your concerns about the ways that fan power is being evaluated here primarily in terms of economic capital. Interestingly, the Veronica Mars campaign was preceded by another effort -- David Fincher's effort to raise funds to produce an animated film based on Eric Powell's cult comic book series, The Goon. This project had set a goal of raising $400,000 in order to fund a story reel as proof of concept for a proposed feature film, and instead, they raised 441,900 from 7,576 backers, which was, as of November, a record-breaker for the micro-funding company, now dramatically surpassed by the Veronica Mars juggernaut. At the time, there was considerable pushback from fans who felt that these funds should be raised by the studio through traditional means rather than tapping the fan network for investments that would be repaid through merchandise but not through either revenue or creative control.  As Cartoon Brew's Amid Amidi wrote at the time:

"Should the film be made by a corporate film studio, that company just saved themselves half a million dollars on the backs of dedicated animation fans who believe they’re funding an indie project, when in reality they’re funding a mainstream Hollywood feature....while I’m sure Fincher and Blur Studios are well intentioned in their desire to make an animated feature, their approach of mixing their fans’ money with those of media corporations, the latter of whom will receive all the profit from a Goon feature, leads to an uncomfortable situation that is contrary to the entire spirit of Kickstarter. Artists should use the generosity of backers in crowdfunding campaigns to fulfill a creative vision, not to help corporations make money, as The Goon Kickstarter is currently set up to do."

These are, to my eyes, legitimate concerns in both of these case but these projects also potentially represent a transitional point in the degree of creative control which cult producers may yield in this still emerging system. Neither The Goon or Veronica Mars were likely to be produced in the absence of a strong show of audience support; both fall into an awkward category of production that is neither fully mainstream nor fully independent. They are both genre series that gain strong support from a substantial niche that is too small to move the levers to greenlight a project under traditional industry logics. Yet, this is why the recent developments seem to me to be game-changers, both in terms of the ways they strengthen the hands of creative producers and of the ways they allow fans to exert a greater influence on production decisions.

I see this as especially true when coupled with the new systems for content production and distribution we are seeing emerging in recent months via the web. We have talked so far about Netflix funding both original programming (House of Cards) and rescuing orphaned cult series (Arrested Development).  Hulu has also announced similar plans and is already importing imaginative content from Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom as exclusives for their subscribers. YouTube has recently developed a system for funding content production. And Amazon has announced that they will be presenting fans with a range of pilots later this year, both comedy and children's series, and asking consumers to weigh in on which ones should be put into full production.

These alternative arrangements offer much to program producers, starting with the fact that with the exception of Amazon where they are introducing content to consumers at an earlier point in the negotiation process, they seem to be making upfront commitments for entire seasons of programs, allowing them to exert creative integrity over entire story arcs, rather than subjecting them to the uncertainties of the ratings, where they might well get cut off after the first few episodes, never resolving any of the enigmas they have set into play. One can be successful in these platforms with a much lower viewership than network television, creating a space for programs that can command a strong niche of intense support, as opposed to the diffused viewership that gets rewarded on the major networks. These programs can have a more unique perspective because they are never designed to appeal to everyone.  Some producers may be much better served in this context: this may no longer be right for Joss Whedon who is turning down Star Wars to keep working with Marvel, but it would certainly be true for someone like Bryan Fuller, who is already revisiting Pushing Daisies and Wonderfalls in the wake of the Veronica Mars news.

The example of The Goon above is an interesting one in this context, since The Goon is a creator-owned comic book series, that has been successfully sustained since 2002. In comics, a creator's rights movement in the 1990s helped pave the way for more sustainable models of content creation: creators now have multiple options for publishing their own work, with or without the challenges of self-distribution. We are seeing some top talents move project by project between the mainstream publishers to self-publishing models and now, through Kickstarter, crowdsourcing models. Kickstarter now ranks just below DC and Marvel as the number three source of comics funding in the United States. And even artists who work with the majors have somewhat greater creative control than before and have been able to cut better deals as a result of the option of going independent.

The space of indie comics, as opposed to underground and alternative comics, has long been smart and original genre content -- pushing comics beyond the superhero genre that dominates DC and Marvel, but also having broader appeal than the more experimental space represented by alternative comics. This seems like the niche that is apt to be filled in this new world of crowd-funding and web distribution that is taking shape week by week before our eyes right now. In such a world, there might not be a need for Rob Thomas to depend upon Warner Brothers to distribute his content, or perhaps, there might be a chance for him to retain more of the IP rights going into his negotiations so that there are more options for series which gain a hardcore audience that is too small to sustain broadcast. Netflix's decision to release all of the episodes at once, allowing for binge viewing, also seems to point towards this kind of program production -- i.e., allowing for more intricately woven stories, which reward this kind of intense viewer commitment.

Such arrangements would help get us out of the paradoxes of these current cases, where producers are appealing for fan support, but ultimately have to work within a system which gives most of the rewards to the same studios who have always controlled production decisions. Clearly, what we need is a creator rights movement for television, which learns as much as it can from the creator rights movement in comics, which is still struggling to fully achieve its goals.

Of course, the costs of television production dwarf those of comics production, meaning that it is unlikely to see fan-support television be fully realized in the short term. Veronica Mars may work as an early example because it is going to be a lot less expensive to produce than some of the cult science fiction or fantasy series that have been mentioned alongside it this week. But, part of what's interesting to me is that Veronica Mars has a fandom that I would describe as mid-level intensity: there are shows out there with much more dedicated and active fan bases. And so, if they can raise the funds, there is apt to be many other series which could, in theory, command this same level of support.

The reality is that in a capitalist-mode of production, fans are always going to be read first and foremost through an economic lens. The old model saw us primarily as a commodity -- eyeballs -- that could be sold to advertisers. More recently, Web 2.0 has treated us primary as a source of creative labor -- for which we are never directly compensated. And now, this model treats us as investors, who may gain some greater creative control as a consequence of advancing gifted producers money they need to get their dream projects into production. For me, the key thing is that the relationship here needs to be transparent: fans need to understand what is being offered and what role they can or will play in the process. In most cases, fans are not seeking to take creative control away from the producers whose work they admire, but they do hope to prevent series from being "retooled" in order to broaden their support, often at the expense of cutting out elements that drew fans to the program in the first place.

Aymar Jean “AJ” Christian

Whew, this is enthralling!

It sounds like we’ve zeroed in on a couple key tensions. One pits creative control for producers and satisfaction for fans against the profit-focused motives of the conglomerates. Another pits their impulse to mainstream against the increasing popularity of indie and digital production, from television to comics.

We can’t resolve these tensions here, but I'll give it a go! To start, some context. And the most important context is the financial health of the studios and distributors. As Mauricio said, it is hard to be a studio, and media executives have always worked in tense environments permeated with fear.

But the truth is the studios are richer now than they’ve been in a decade (after the heyday of the 1990s). Movies are still popular. People watch almost as television as they ever have, albeit across more devices and technologies. Media stocks have joined the broader market rally after lows in late 2008 and early 2009. From that low, ViacomComcastand Lions Gate stocks have quadrupled. News. Corp has quintupled. Time Warner and Disney’s have tripled. There are lot of reasons for this, but the underlying factor is there is much more power in distribution these days. Since there are so many niche markets, distributors with resources can grab our attention. Everyone knows when the next Star Wars is due.

Studios seek market share to keep stocks afloat, and that's why they’ve been spending hundreds of millions marketing new film franchises. And now web networks are taking a cue, hence Netflix outspending legacy TV with House of Cards. These investments in franchises pay off. They are rich, even as they underfund niche markets (Viacom cable channels Logo and BET, for just one example, are criminally under-resourced, with some shows actually written by freelancers!).

Which brings us to our conundrum, and the tensions above: clearly fans and producers know what’s going on. They know, instinctually, studio money is being funneled to bigger and bigger “mainstream” products, as companies reach for market share amidst the tidal wave of digital production.

As Derek Johnson argues in his new book, we have to view bottom-up dynamics in the context of the growth of franchising, the studio’s (logical) way of responding to complex market dynamics. As Suzanne rightly noted, crowdsourced projects really are a message to distributors from fans and producers to studios that they’ve gone too far, channeling investments in IP higher and higher. Why, even with the lowered production costs of digital, have mid-range projects dried up? As Rob Thomas has noted, the $2-$20 million film is struggling, but there’s no reason it should be. Veronica Mars is an important reminder, if an ambivalent one, since Thomas also noted they need Warner Bros. to work out gifts.

In this environment, mainstream distributors are both essential and inadequate. Focusing on the breadth and depth of bottom-up efforts at value creation points the way to reform: producers and fans are already leading, but they can only go so far on their own. Their efforts, niche-driven, are largely unseen, because they are sporadic. Individual scholars and journalists are aware of the robust growth in indie production in gaming, comics, film, music, television (web series), radio (podcasting) and publishing (blogging to e-books). These are all markets dominated by conglomerates, in various ways, and yet we rarely talk about them in conversation (Henry's work a significant exception).

Which is why it’s good we’re having this conversation! Can we imagine a different system than what we have now? I think we can. And it starts with independents.

Why, for instance, don’t studios have internal mechanisms for nurturing franchises from the ground up? Studying web series has shown me how we can think of TV development differently: certain niches can nurture small but passionate fan bases for budgets well under the cost of marketing Avatar or ambitious series that flop like Terra Nova or Smash. And it’s not just in low-fi comedy; special effects heavy series like Video Game High School indicate there’s a lot of value yet to be mined. The indie comics Henry mentioned are an excellent source.

All of this activity can be streamlined and aggregated. The studios could market one less blockbuster a year and incubate dozens upon dozens of projects, with enough to support union (read: trained, skilled) labor from the oversupply of art/film-school graduates. They don’t do this because they have to report quarterly to shareholders, so they think short-term. It takes years to grow such projects, but the pay-off could be huge. Projects that prove successful at a smaller scale could argue for more resources and broaden narratives with fans in conversation. “Bombing” rates could go down.

Conglomerates do support small-scale projects, but not consistently. Veronica Mars is only a higher-profile example;The Goon is another. Of the web series I’ve tracked that have been picked up for television – like super-grassroots YouTube series Fred and The Annoying Orange, which spent years cultivating millions of fans – most are successful enough to go beyond one season. Now cable networks are looking to artier showrunners like Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer, creators of the brilliant sketch series Broad City that Comedy Central just picked up to series (with a little help from Amy Poehler, no stranger to YouTube). I'm running a series of essays on "Indie TV Innovation" on my blog next month, with contributions from Jane Espenson (Husbands), Glazer and a dozen others, to show how there's a lot of value being generated in these spaces at very low-cost.

The problem is these examples are scattered and dispersed. The effect of studio neglect is we get a small number of outrageous case studies like Veronica Mars that present ethical conundrums because there aren’t structures in place. Under-investment also means, even if projects can generate fans, they often do so at lesser quality, which perpetuates the myth that indie projects are artistically impoverished.

We are indeed in a capitalist mode of production that privileges conglomerates and publicly-traded companies, and the culture in Washington suggests that won’t change anytime soon, which is fine. But the takeaway from Veronica Mars et al. should be a call for distributors to: invest in the growing segment of smaller and mid-range projects, hand over intellectual property and creative control (something web series creators like Felicia Day have been fiercely advocating for years) and nurture more fan-driven projects before producers face the crowds. They have the money. It’s better for business, for workers and the culture at large.

Aymar Jean “AJ” Christian is an assistant professor of communication in the Media, Technology and Society program at Northwestern University. His manuscript, tentatively titled Off the Line, Independent Television and the Transformation of Creative Economy, explores the politics and value of the web series market. He edits a personal blog, Televisual, has been published in the academic journals Continuum, Transformative Works and Cultures, First Monday and Cinema Journal, and in the popular press in Slate, Indiewire, The Wall Street Journal and The Root, among others. For more information, visit his site.

Suzanne Scott is a Mellon Digital Scholarship Postdoctoral Fellow in the Center for Digital Learning + Research at Occidental College.  Her work on fandom within convergence culture, transmedia storytelling, and fanboy auteurism has been published in the anthologies Cylons in AmericaThe Participatory Cultures Handbook, and A Companion to Media Authorship, and the journal Transformative Works and Cultures.  She blogs at Revenge of the Fans and tweets @iheartfatapollo.
Mauricio Mota is one the founders of The Alchemists, Entertainment Group responsible for building original transmedia narratives and content for studios, publishing companies, fans and brands. Some of their clients include Coca-Cola, Petrobras, TV Globo, CW, Elle Magazine, NFL, Nextel and the Brazilian Ministry of Education. He was responsible for bringing the concept of transmedia storytelling to Brazil and implemented the Transmedia Communication Department for Globo Television (4th largest network in the world).

 

Comics, Comics, Comics...

A while back, I announced that alternative comics creator C. Tyler was coming to USC to give a talk about her life and work. Tyler was part of the group of women who contributed to the important Twisted Sisters anthology series; she worked closely with Aline Kominsky-Crumb (not to mention Aline's husband, Robert) and has been married to Justin Green (another key figure in the underground comics movement) for several decades. She has always produced bracingly honest, beautifully crafted, autobiographical stories, often centering around her experiences of low-paying jobs and the challenges of motherhood, but deeply embedded in a sense of family and gender politics. Tyler has justly gotten new acclaim and interest as a result of You'll Never Know, a three volume series of graphic novels focused on her father and mother, who were World War II veterans, and what they passed down to subsequent generations. People who attended her talk at USC found it a remarkable experience: she was so fresh and authentic and down to earth about herself and her art; she shared enormous insights into her tools, her raw materials, and her process, and she was so generous in engaging with our students, many of whom were young women who want to make their own creative contributions to the world. The program flew by with never a dull moment. So, I am very proud to finally be able to share the video of this event with my readers.

*********** On other fronts, I've wanted for a while to do a shout-out to the wonderful work being done on a new web comic series, My So-Called Secret Identity.

Here's some of the background about the project they provide online:

My So-Called Secret Identity is what happened when internationally-acclaimed Batman scholar and popular culture expert, Dr Will Brooker, decided to stop criticising mainstream comics for their representation of women, and show how it could be done differently; how it could be done better. Working with professional illustrator Susan Shore and PhD in superhero art, Dr Sarah Zaidan, Brooker assembled a team to build a new universe, close enough to the familiar capes-and-cowls mythos to offer critical comment, but distinct enough to strike out in a whole new direction and offer a story unlike any other superhero title. The costume designs and character sketches for My So-Called Secret Identity were created by established names and fan favourites, from Lea Hernandez to Hanie Mohd. These very different artists offered very different takes on the characters and their styles, but they had one thing in common. In a deliberate reversal of mainstream industry conventions, almost all the creative team behind MSCSI are female.

And here's a bit about the series' main character:

All her life, Cat's been taught to be little, learned to keep herself small, tried to avoid attention. Don't be too full of yourself. Don't show off. And most of all, don't let people know how smart you are, because they don't like it. But Cat really is someone special. Cat is the smartest person in Gloria City. She remembers everything she reads; she knows how everything connects. And she's getting tired of pretending, of hiding, of acting dumb to save other people's feelings.

My So-Called Secret Identity is, to put it in technical terms, wonderful. You can tell from the first page how much thought has gone into this story, the development of its protagonist, the visual treatment of the material, and the way to share this tale with readers. Brooker brings to this project a life-time of thinking deeply about the genre conventions of the superhero comic, but he also brings with it a sensitivity to the many different ways where the world strips young women of their self-esteem and teaches them that they should not be so "confident" in the ways they speak about themselves and their work.

Cat, she of many names and many identities, she of great power and intelligence, is struggling to figure out who she is and where she belongs. She is working to piece together her mission and to come to grips with her power.

Susan Shore and Sarah Zaidan's visual style is warm and soft, standing in contrast with the garish look we associate with superhero comics, and there is a strong sense of place here as Cat shares with us some of her favorite nooks and crannies in Gloria City. This is one of the strongest first books in a new comics series I have read in a while and I can't wait to see more. The creators are raising funds as they go,so if you like what you see, make a contribution.

cat_cover_text

 

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I also wanted to give a shout-out to a new blog, started by William Proctor, a comics scholar at the Center for Research in Media and Cultural Studies at the University of Sunderland, who was nice enough to play host to me this summer when I was visiting his city. His blog, Infinite Earths, intends to bring together a community of academics, fans, and artists, who want to talk seriously about comics, especially British comics, and so far, it has lived up to any expectations. So far, he has published an autobiographical essay by the above-mentioned Will Brooker discussing his childhood fascination with some of the ground-breaking Vertico titles and the first part of an extended rumination by Bryan Talbot, one of my favorite British comics creators, about the thinking that went into his now classic A Tale of One Bad Rat, as well as Proctor's own notes about a recent Talbot lecture on the history of anthropomorphic animals in comics. I have already promised Procotor an interview about my own current comics research, but regardless, I plan to keep close eye on this blog in the months ahead.

 

Kickstart This!: Is The World Ready For a Nigerian Superhero?

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Like many of my readers this week, I am enormously excited about the ground-breaking success of the Kickstarter campaign to get Veronica Mars into production as a feature film and what this means about the future relations between fans and producers of cult media. Next week, I am planning to run a extended conversation with some key thinking partners placing the Veronica Mars campaign (and Netflix's venture into original television content) into some perspective.

But I don't want us to forget that Kickstarter has been as powerful if not more so in helping to provide seed funds for independent artists of all kinds and as such, it has become a key vehicle for increasing the diversity of cultural production. My co-authors Sam Ford, Joshua Green, and I discuss Kickstarter in our book, Spreadable Media: Creating Meaning and Value in a Networked Culture, alongside a range of other developments which are creating stronger bonds between independent artists and their supporters -- from pre-production through release.

Today, I want to put my weight behind an independent media property -- Spider Stories -- which was brought to my attention by a USC undergraduate, Charles Agbaje. The Agbaje Brothers (Charles and John) have been publishing independent comics under the Central City Tower label for several years now, and they are seeking funds to take their efforts to the next level -- developing a cartoon series which has its roots in traditional African folktales and myths, but which speaks to the genre expectations of our current pop cosmopolitan generation.

Here's how they describe the basic premise:

Spider Stories follows the tale of Princess Zahara who is thrown into hiding after the royal family is overthrown by a corrupt neighboring kingdom. While traveling with a misfit caravan of merchants she meets a wandering drummer griot who introduces her to the spirit world. Armed with a mystical staff, the fearless princess embarks on quest to reconnect with the spirits, reunite her homeland, and reclaim the throne.

We are developing an 11 minute animated pilot for a fantasy adventure series called Spider Stories. Your pledges will go towards funding a team of animators to get it done at a professional level of quality.

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 They argue that fans of superhero comics have grown up on Norse myths (Thor) and Greek myths (Hercules); we are starting to see Japanese and Chinese folktales making their way into anime and manga, but that comics and animation have so far done  little to tap into the rich cultural traditions of Africa (with the possible exception of the recent revamp of The Black Panther at Marvel). The Agbaje Brothers have expressed concern with the fact that African-American youth are often cut off from their own cultural traditions and all of us receive a single-dimensional understanding of Africa (which many westerners see as a country rather than a continent with many diverse national traditions). However, they are also concerned that so often stories by and for African-Americans get cut off from the cultural mainstream and thus do not reach the largest possible audience. So they very much want to create something that speaks across racial and cultural divides.

If the art work and proof of concept videos they share on their Kickstarter page are any indication, this has the potential to be a spectacular project, and it is precisely the kind of production that Kickstarter was designed to support -- one which is unlikely to get very far with mainstream animation or comics producers unless they can demonstrate a broad range of support and can show the world what they can do. Let's see if we can give them their chance.

In some of their promotional materials, the brothers talk about how their experiences growing up together had shaped the kinds of stories they want to share through their work. I asked Charles to tell me more about these formative influences on their work:

The stories we made growing up span all kinds of sci-fi, fantasy, and superhero tales. We were first inspired by the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon, and you can see early on we invented several mutant animals of our own. Later we were influenced by the wide variety of anime that hit in the late 90s, particularly shows that made their way onto Toonami. Dragonball Z, Gundam Wing, Tenchi and more were among our favorites. As video games became more sophisticated RPGs and Adventure game story-lines such as The Legend of Zelda also influenced our style. Throughout, the complexity and action in the DCAU such as Batman: The Animated Series, Batman Beyond, and Justice League also contributed to our sensibilities.

We have our fair share of costumed superheroes such as the Storm Surfers, mutant animals like The Frogs, and classic swords and sorcery in Crimson Knight. Even though a lot of these characters started off fairly simple, some we've had in our minds literally since we were 5 years old, and the stories have since grown and matured.

Starting with Project 0 in 2010, we moved away from our old ideas and began to synthesize them into new properties that couldn't be so easily labeled. This also helped us as story tellers. In creating new stories we were able to critique them objectively without the nostalgia lens that would only really make sense to us. Project 0 is a mix of fantasy, sci-fi and adventure taking cues from a lot of our previous original properties, to as diverse sources of inspiration as Digimon and The Matrix.

Though we still plan to revist several of our age old stories, we are now moving forward with another new series called Spider Stories.

Spider too takes cues from a lot of our old ideas, and then more modern fantasies such as Avatar The Last Airbender or Nintendo's Fire Emblem. It takes the same grand scale epic appraoch to world building and story telling that fans around the world love to see. But it does it in an African inspired backdrop which, while there are a few out there, have never really been acknowledged by mainstream audiences. We're doing a lot of homework on African mythology and history. And we are always sure to consult our cultural experts, our parents, to make sure it stays authentic.

So often the depiction of blacks and Africans in the media is one of poverty, corruption, or ignorance. At its most positive, black characters are often sidekicks or best friends to the lead, and black culture is typically framed through an other-ed lens. Even when it isn't, such shows and movies are often relegated to niche markets and targeted so narrowly as 'black entertainment' that it may be alienating to non-black audiences.

We want Spider to really be a universal story. While it takes on African aesthetics and sensibilities, it is written to be accessible to all audiences regardless of ethnicity. It's pure fantasy, not historical fiction or an adaptation of an existing myth. We hope audiences will be able to relate to the characters as people first. The nods to culture and history should spark interest in fans to seek out and learn more about Africa on their own. Art is often a launching point for cultural exposure, and the more it's seen, the more normalized it becomes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

What Transmedia Producers Should Know About Comics: An Interview with Tyler Weaver (Part One)

From the very start, one of the powers of the superhero has been the capacity to leap across media in a single bound. Part of what cemented Superman's role in the American popular imagination was the degree to which he came at consumers from multiple media at once -- as a character who moved from comic books to comic strips, radio, animated shorts, live action serials, all in a matter of a few years, and then, television series, feature films, and computer games. This process of extending the mythology by absorbing elements associated with these other media has refreshed the character over time and made it feel that much more vivid in the minds of its fans. We will soon be seeing yet another transmedia reboot of the Man of Steel with the release this summer of a new feature film and all of the other stuff that is being constructed around it. Tyler Weaver's new book, Comics For Film, Games and Animation: Using Comics to Construct Your Transmedia Storyworld represents the latest in a growing series of books that seeks to explain the still emerging and evolving practices associated with transmedia. In this case, Weaver combines a healthy dose of transmedia theory and production advice with a rich history of the American comics tradition (one primarily focused around the evolution of the superhero as the now dominant genre in mainstream comics production). The book also provides us with thoughtful analysis of specific transmedia products and franchises, including some that represent the movement of comics into other media (such as Batman: Arkham City or Batman: The Animated Series), some representing the movement of other media franchises into comics (such as Halo and Star Trek), some representing the attempts of other media to create their own superhero characters (The Incredibles), and finally, a few (such as The Fountain) which have sought to create and integrate original narratives across comics and other media. The result will be a treat for those of us who have been life-long comics readers, but it may also be a revelation for those who are just discovering how central comics have become to the operations of contemporary popular culture.

More than that, Weaver makes a strong case that many of the practices of contemporary transmedia were prefigured or had their origins in the ways that DC and Marvel have managed their extended universes over the past half decade or more. A better understanding of comics, for example, might help us to think through the shifting balance between continuity and multiplicity, the challenges of maintaining seriality over an extended period of time, the risks of balancing the veteran's fascination with mastery with the new comer's interest in accessibility. Over the course of this interview, Weaver speaks to each of these issues and much more.

You cite the adage, “every comic book is someone’s first,” several times across the book.  Yet, while comics publishers often acknowledge this truism, there are also wide spread complaints that many current comics are impenetrable to first time readers, since they assume a hardcore fan deeply immersed in the continuity and mythology of the publisher’s own fictional universe. What does this suggest about the challenges of transmedia design?

I’m not convinced that the impenetrability of continuity and mythologies is at fault for keeping “new readers” away from the experience of buying comics on a regular basis. First, there are more demands on time and greater competition for attention from other media. Video games are to this generation what superhero comics were to kids in the 20th century, with many featuring deep continuities and mythologies with the added appeal of “you are the hero” immersion and the opportunity to demonstrate expertise through accomplishments, rewards, and completing the game on heightening levels of difficulty.

But the problem goes much deeper than demands on time. While continuity is a chain that produces longevity, unlocks story potential and gives fans something to dig into and a means to demonstrate expertise, it can strangle innovation and storytelling when it is wielded in the name of nostalgia and isn’t in line with the values and storytelling tendencies of the current generation. I think that’s what we’re seeing now. I’m a lifelong comics lover, and I hate to say it, but the story offerings of the biggest and most visible publishers (there are exceptions) aren’t that compelling.

A great continuity and mythology gives audiences something to dig into and a reason to hunt for back issues and return month after month. The only way stories — be it a transmedia story experience, video game, comics, television, novel –– inspire that sort of emotional and time investment is through incredible storytelling and characters that the audience wants to revisit again and again.

Your book includes an extensive history of the notion of seriality, a principle which I have long contended is central to understanding contemporary transmedia. Yet, it has been surprisingly absent from most accounts of the arts of comics and graphic storytelling, appearing no where, say, in the work of Scott McCloud and Will Eisner. What do we gain by emphasizing the serial nature of American comics publication and what might we learn by seeing the expansive and interlocking narrative structures of long-form superhero comics as an exemplar for what contemporary transmedia practice might look like?

Seriality is an essential component in a storytelling equation:

Seriality plus Elasticity (or, Evolutionary Ability of a Character) plus Craft equals Longevity.

Spider-Man just celebrated his 50th birthday. Batman? Going strong at 74. Superman? 75.  Superman alone has been published regularly for nearly 900 months, usually more than once a month in a variety of books (in the 1990s, he was up to five solo books including the quarterly Man of Tomorrow). When something is published for that long on a regular basis, the confines of reality and human lifespan make it inevitable that the original creator won’t be with the character all those years. Again, there are exceptions, such as Will Eisner and The Spirit, though I would argue that The Spirit is more known for the craft and innovations Eisner brought to the medium through that character than the character himself.

But, in most cases - such as Superman, Batman, and Spider-Man - this is where the elasticity of a character - the evolutionary ability of that character - comes into play. Each creative team can build upon, pay homage to, deviate, stretch, and bring their own vision to the character because of the serialized nature of American comics and the reality of reality.

Seriality and elasticity require great storytelling craft to connect with an audience.  There has to be some sort of primal connection between audience and mythology. I would argue that in the case of Superman, Batman, and Spider-Man, it’s their simplicity. Orphan from doomed planet (shown most brilliantly in Grant Morrison’s All-Star Superman in the space of four panels), through the love of a kindly couple, becomes symbol of truth and justice and Earth’s protector. Boy witnesses murder of parents, vows that no one will feel the same pain, dedicates life to war on crime. High school nerd bitten by spider, with great power comes great responsibility. All are vibrant mythologies and iconic representations of popular culture created by simplicity and populated with memorable characters that connect to audiences on a primal level.

Transmedia storytellers should understand this equation and consider it in the construction of their stories. How long do they want the experience to last? Is it a finite experience? An ongoing one? How can they craft enduring characters that can evolve - both with technology and with the vision of new creators (like Halo and the leap from Bungie to 343 Industries)?

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

Scrapbooks and Army Surplus: C. Tyler’s You’ll Never Know

For those of you who live in the Los Angeles area, I wanted to call attention to a special event I am hosting at the USC campus on the evening of Jan. 31, featuring noted underground cartoonist C. Tyler. Here's the details.

And for those of you who do not live in Los Angeles, I will still encourage you to check out her remarkable three part graphic novel series, You'll Never Know, published by Fantagraphic Books, and just completed at the end of last year. I plan to write an extended essay about this book as part of my new Comics...and Stuff project. Below is an abstract I wrote describing why I find this graphic novel so rich and interesting:

“And like I said, I knew he had been to war. Mom told me. He didn’t tell me. It’s not something He wanted to talk about EVER. He had buried Europe 1944-45 under tons of mental concrete. Exactly what happened -- the details we never knew. Of what value would this information be anymore? That’s what he figured. And with no evidence around the house -- well, why not forget it. Except for this one scrapbook album of army pictures, carefully mounted photos with no dates or information. I never knew what they recorded specifically. No text. Maybe that’s what intrigued me: a parallel world where my Dad looked like he was having fun.” -- C. Tyler

One night, the underground cartoonist C. Tyler received a phone call from her usually taciturn 90 year old father, a World War II veteran, who suddenly wants to dump on her memories of long-ago experiences which up until that moment fell into “the category of ‘leave it the hell alone’ or ‘it’s none of your goddamn business.’” This phone call triggers an extended artistic practice as Tyler tried to capture her father’s memories first with a video camera and later through the panels of a trilogy of graphic novels, which in the process expand to tell the story not only of her father but of several generations of her family’s history.  If the father is stingy with the personal memories he is willing to share, even within the privacy of the family, his daughter fits within an exhibitionist streak in graphic storytelling which was partially initiated by the pioneering work of her husband, underground cartoonist Justin Green: she uses comics as a vehicle to work through personal issues and break down the culture of silence that informed her childhood. Ultimately, the books are designed as a tribute to the “greatest generation,” but they also speak with empathy about what happens when you bottle up so many powerful emotions, allowing them to come out only through actions and not through words and images.

The published books are shaped like a scrapbook album and when she tells her father’s story, she adopts a panel structure that reproduces the pages of a scrapbook, complete with rubber stamped page numbers and dates on each panel.  She adopts a much broader array of styles, some realistic, some cartoonish, some iconic. Sometimes, she uses the printed book like a scrapbook, incorporating a yellowed news clipping documenting the childhood death of her sister, or wartime letters from her father to the woman whom he would marry. She incorporates maps, charts, graphs, designed to explain aspects of her family’s experience, though often used in a less than naturalistic manner, as when she offers a diagram on blue print paper of the surgery her father would undergo in his struggles against cancer.

Ultimately, the finished product, You’ll Never Know, a Graphic Memoir, is, as Tyler told one interviewer, about “the stuff that gets passed down to the next generation,” with stuff here meant to describe material culture (including what she describes as “O.D. anomalies” (for “Olive Drab”) stored away in the basement or the buckets of acids and corrosives that she has to convince her pack-rat father to dispose of when he wants to move across the country, or the tools and nails shown in a detailed drawing of her father’s work area) but stuff also refers to the emotional baggage, equally toxic, which her repressed and sometimes overbearing father passed down to her generation. The two are brought together powerfully in a scene involving a box of old photographs and birth announcements which finally provokes her mother to talk for the first time about the death of her sister. Throughout the book, we learn about the characters through their interactions over stuff, such as the time when her father, jealous of the attention his wife is receiving, walls up several hundred carefully addressed Christmas cards behind a dry wall he is constructing, or a powerful story about what happens to the father’s old army jacket.

This video shares a segment from her interview with her father and shows how she has been able to convert this raw material into a rich autobiographical comic.

C. Tyler's work on the graphic novel has brought her into closer contact with many veterans -- not only of the Second World War but more recent armed conflicts. Tyler has been helping veterans to learn how to produce comics as a vehicle for sharing some of their memories and working through some of their emotions in the aftershock of their time under fire. Here's a video about her work.