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