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.