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

The Reader and the Character

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Parts of the Whole

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Layers and Folds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MORE TO COME

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

“Contrast Is Everything”

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Make Mine Marvel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MORE TO COME

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

Influences – East and West

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alchemy, Improvization, and Process

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MORE TO COME

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comics, the Subversive Art

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MORE TO COME

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

Henry Jenkins:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aymar Jean “AJ” Christian

Whew, this is enthralling!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Comics, Comics, Comics…

A while back, I announced that alternative comics creator C. Tyler was coming to USC to give a talk about her life and work. Tyler was part of the group of women who contributed to the important Twisted Sisters anthology series; she worked closely with Aline Kominsky-Crumb (not to mention Aline’s husband, Robert) and has been married to Justin Green (another key figure in the underground comics movement) for several decades. She has always produced bracingly honest, beautifully crafted, autobiographical stories, often centering around her experiences of low-paying jobs and the challenges of motherhood, but deeply embedded in a sense of family and gender politics. Tyler has justly gotten new acclaim and interest as a result of You’ll Never Know, a three volume series of graphic novels focused on her father and mother, who were World War II veterans, and what they passed down to subsequent generations.

People who attended her talk at USC found it a remarkable experience: she was so fresh and authentic and down to earth about herself and her art; she shared enormous insights into her tools, her raw materials, and her process, and she was so generous in engaging with our students, many of whom were young women who want to make their own creative contributions to the world. The program flew by with never a dull moment. So, I am very proud to finally be able to share the video of this event with my readers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Here’s how they describe the basic premise:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

From the very start, one of the powers of the superhero has been the capacity to leap across media in a single bound. Part of what cemented Superman’s role in the American popular imagination was the degree to which he came at consumers from multiple media at once — as a character who moved from comic books to comic strips, radio, animated shorts, live action serials, all in a matter of a few years, and then, television series, feature films, and computer games. This process of extending the mythology by absorbing elements associated with these other media has refreshed the character over time and made it feel that much more vivid in the minds of its fans. We will soon be seeing yet another transmedia reboot of the Man of Steel with the release this summer of a new feature film and all of the other stuff that is being constructed around it.

Tyler Weaver’s new book, Comics For Film, Games and Animation: Using Comics to Construct Your Transmedia Storyworld represents the latest in a growing series of books that seeks to explain the still emerging and evolving practices associated with transmedia. In this case, Weaver combines a healthy dose of transmedia theory and production advice with a rich history of the American comics tradition (one primarily focused around the evolution of the superhero as the now dominant genre in mainstream comics production). The book also provides us with thoughtful analysis of specific transmedia products and franchises, including some that represent the movement of comics into other media (such as Batman: Arkham City or Batman: The Animated Series), some representing the movement of other media franchises into comics (such as Halo and Star Trek), some representing the attempts of other media to create their own superhero characters (The Incredibles), and finally, a few (such as The Fountain) which have sought to create and integrate original narratives across comics and other media. The result will be a treat for those of us who have been life-long comics readers, but it may also be a revelation for those who are just discovering how central comics have become to the operations of contemporary popular culture.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seriality is an essential component in a storytelling equation:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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