Storytelling and Digital-Age Civics: First Sessions As Seen from the MAPP Situation Room

The following post was written by my Civic Paths research team, including Liana Gamber-Thompson,  Sam Close, Neta Kligler-Vilenchik, and Raffi Sarkissian.

Last Tuesday, the Media, Activism and Participatory Politics (MAPP) team here at USC kicked off our webinar series on Storytelling and Digital-Age Civics in partnership with Youth Radio, Connected Learning, and the Media Arts + Practice Division at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts. This webinar series examines the role of storytelling as a practice that bridges cultural and civic/political engagement, particularly in the context of digital spaces. The webinars bring together participants from different groups which have been innovative at using storytelling for their civic and political goals. The webinars, co-hosted with Youth Radio, have gotten off to a great start, spurring some very thought-provoking conversations among a stellar group of diverse participants (Webinar 1 Speakers; Webinar 2 Speakers).

In addition to the awesome moderators and speakers, a dedicated team of researchers and graduate students affiliated with the MAPP initiative has been holding down the “situation room” , live-tweeting the event and participating in the Livestream chat.* The full recording of each webinar is embedded below.  But, if you don’t have time to watch the whole conversation, the behind the scenes team has included highlights here, often identified through moments we all tweeted at the same time!

The team hard at work in the “situation room” during Webinar 2

 

Webinar 1: Finding Your Story

 

Watch live streaming video from connectedlearningtv at livestream.com
Watch live streaming video from connectedlearningtv at livestream.com

The first webinar focused on how participants identify and frame stories that engage their communities. Some highlights include:

  • Invisible Children co-founder Jason Russell tells how personal experiences in Uganda opened his eyes to the problem of child soldiers at 9:30 minutes into the video.

  • DREAM activist Erick Huerta uses the internet as a “message in a bottle” to reach undocumented youth and other Dreamers; see at 12 minutes into the video.

  • See Carol Zou from the public fiber arts collective Yarnbombing LA explain how story helps her group build their internal community.  Panelists explain the benefits of using story in activism from 20 minutes into the video.

  • Moderator Derek asks the activists about identifying target audiences in story-based activism at 27 minutes into the video.

  • Jason responds to some critiques of his organization’s largely white American audience, pointing out that stories are based on experience: “You write and create what you know and what you experience, and that creation or that story is a direct reflection of the audience that’s going to hear you.”  See at 35 minutes into the video.

  • Livestream chat participants pose an interesting question to the panelists: How do you protect your stories, prevent misappropriation, and counter hostile remix? How do you tell your own stories versus others’ stories? See their responses at 38 minutes into the video.

  • Starting from 43 minutes into the video, panelists respond to the suggestion that hard facts and data, not stories, create actual change. Monica Mendoza from Youthspeaks argues that “stories are what attracts people to issues” and are “the backbone to a lot of social movements.”

  • Hear Matt Howard from Iraq Veterans Against the War talk about how his group made sure mainstream press coverage included both them and their Afghani partners at a protest. At 48 minutes into the video, the activists share more thoughts about how to keep a story on track and negotiate telling the stories of others.

 

Webinar 2: Making Your Story

Watch live streaming video from connectedlearningtv at livestream.com

The second webinar examined how to best give shape to stories for civic purposes. Some highlights include:

  • Musical artist Dorian Electra and Tani Ikeda from imMEDIAte Justice Productions share notes on creating projects that use media as a catalyst to engage youth in “boring” issues like economics and health education.  Hear all the panelists describe a project their group has created from 5 minutes into the video.

  • “It’s pretty hard to explain to a freshman ‘you’re being segregated.’ It was something so complicated, but when they saw it on a map they saw that it was real.”  High school students Roxana Ayala and Uriel Gonzalez tell their story of using GIS maps to explain de facto segregation to fellow students and community members at 21 minutes into the video.

  • At 25 minutes into the video, activists discuss the skills they had to acquire to make stories that matter. For Charlene Carruthers from the Black Youth Project’s BYP100, a key skill is facilitating conversations with people with diverse views and creating a story that touches a diverse group.

  • Hear cartoonist Andy Warner describe how he uses story characters to create a call-and-response dynamic with his audience.  From 37 minutes into the video, the activists give advice on how to create narratives and use aesthetics to make stories resonate.

  • Ever heard of “cultural acupuncture”?  Lauren Bird from the Harry Potter Alliance explains how it helps her organization create campaigns with wide cultural resonance.  Panelists debate whether stories should be of the moment or meant to stick around from 46 minutes into the video.

Join us for Webinar 3, “Spreading Your Story,” tomorrow, January 21st at 10:00 am PST and Webinar 4, “Considering Your Story’s Digital Afterlife,” next Tuesday, January 28th at 10:00 am PST. You can watch the webinars live and ask questions via Livestream.  Also join in the conversation on Twitter via #civicpaths and #connectedlearning. There’s sure to be even more interesting insights generated in the weeks to come!

*The support team includes: Samantha Close (@ButNoCigar), Raffi Sarkissian (@rsark), Karl Menjivar-Baumann (@newclearistbau), Liana Gamber-Thompson (@lianathomp), and Neta Kligler-Vilenchik (@Netakv).

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

“Engage!”: Reflections on My Public Intellectuals Class

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The cartoon above was created for the USC Annenberg Agenda, the newly revamped newsletter for the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. Jeremy Rosenberg, the school’s Assistant Dean for Public Affairs and Special Events, commissioned Chandler Wood, an LA-based comics artist, to sit in on several sessions of my Public Intellectuals: Theory and Practice class and capture something of the spirit of our ongoing conversations. Wood was the author of Another LA Story, a comic which ran in the LAWeekly from 2005 to 2011. A storyboard artist and designer of many a commercial and the occasional film (most recently 47 Ronin), he is nearing completion of his first graphic novel, Tonight There’s Gonna Be a Jailbreak, co-authored with Darren Le Gallo. I thought he did a brilliant job in conveying something of the core of the class and capturing some aspects of my personality and persona. This is the first of what the school hopes will be an ongoing series of cartoons focused around some of the innovative teaching within the school.

If you’ve followed this blog, you already know about this class. You can find the syllabus here. And you may well have seen the series of blog posts my PhD students generated as part of the class activities (running between October 8 and October 28.

As I look back at my experiences teaching the class last term, I consider it one of my peak intellectual experiences in a classroom. This was an extraordinary group of students, who came from diverse backgrounds in Communication and Cinema Studies, and many of them came to the class with some practical experience at translating their ideas into language which might effectively reach some public beyond the academy. Some already had blogs, some had been journalists, some were already appearing on television interview programs, and some have worked on student radio. But, all of them grew enormously over the course of the semester as a result of paying close attention to issues of writing and self-presentation and especially in being reflective about their own goals and about what their desired public might expect from them. Some were studying and theorizing communication practices that they had not yet applied to their own work, and sometimes, they were struck by the contradictions between what they knew conceptually and what their reflexes were as a scholar in training. By the end, all of them seemed to have grown enormously — it is too easy to say they found their own voice, since most of them had a powerful voice before, but they learned to use their voice more effectively in the service of their personal and professional agendas.

I was struck by the urgency of the students’ desires to talk through these issues of “professional development” which extended beyond recommendations that grew out of the “publish or perish” tradition. They knew a fair amount about what was involved in submitting conference papers and journal articles, but most of them hoped that there could be more to their professional lives than these scholarly pursuits. Many of them had strong political motives for wanting to speak out to a large public about their research — students working on how to create environmental awareness or shape educational policy or challenge efforts to regulate the content of video games or challenge various forms of privilege and overturn negative stereotypes. Some of them, perhaps most, had creative urges which were not going to be satisfied by producing sometimes deadening academic prose. Some of them wanted to forge strong alliances with nonprofit organizations, governmental agencies, political parties, labor unions, or media production companies, which would allow them to not only study the current media environment, but also to help transform and reshape it. Many of them were struggling with deep ambivalences about whether they wanted to pursue a career in academic life or whether they wanted to make a difference in some other sector. But, they had found it hard to talk about these conflicting goals and ambitions in their other subjects, had found that universities often treat PhD candidates who don’t want to became academics as failures, rather than exploring ways that scholarly skills and knowledge might become resources for a range of other activities.

I was also struck by how enthusiastic so many of our guest speakers were. I drew extensively on other faculty and researchers in the Annenberg School and elsewhere at USC who had a public-facing dimension to their work. They saw what we were doing in the class as important and they were eager to contribute. They found the class a chance to reflect deeply on their own professional practices. And they spoke frankly about the rewards and risks in pursuing these kinds of opportunities. One thing my students said again and again in their closing reflections on the class was that this approach showed them so many different (sometimes contradictory) models of how they might do work that mattered to a larger public.

An ongoing debate in the class had to do with the kinds of relationship which might exist between Communication scholars and industry, from some who held industry at arm’s length, to others who had found jobs which allowed them to move fluidly between the two. We talked about the ways that scholarship might make a difference in shaping media companies, and we talked about some of the painful compromises and dead-ends other researchers had encountered trying to do these kinds of interventions.

Speakers were frank about failures in a way which doesn’t happen very often in the classroom or in our writing, and we heard a lot about what we can learn from our own and others’ mistakes as we are taking meaningful risks in the pursuit of our work. I had colleagues who worried that I was trying to turn all graduate students into public intellectuals, but I think that the class gave students many chances to reflect on what choices are right for them and what is gained and lost by thinking outloud in public. We considered definitions of the public intellectual which involved speaking truth to power, but we concluded that in order to do this, one has to actually speak to power, and that often involves moving out of our comfort zones and dealing with people we don’t know very well or trust very much.

A key theme running through the class was the power of storytelling. Students heard from several different journalists about how they might translate their ideas for a larger audience, and again and again, it came down to telling compelling stories, often drawn from personal experiences. In doing so, we found ourselves pushing back against a generation of scholars who had been taught to distrust narrative as brushing over contradictions and not challenging established wisdom or reinforcing racist stereotypes and patriarchal pleasures. The challenge, then, was how to hold onto the underlying values which drove those critiques, while finding ways to expand the conversations those critiques grew out of. It is no longer enough to “problematize” existing frameworks unless doing so can also provide tools that can be appreciated and deployed by those who are on the front lines of these struggles.

We talked a lot about the ways that it is much easier, less risky, for some people to tell their stories than others, and this led to some frank discussions about how race, gender, and sexuality are experienced within — and beyond — academic cultures and I came to admire the good humor and civility with which everyone involved was able to share their experiences and perspectives around these often “touchy” issues. We benefited enormously from having a mix of international students in the group, who again and again forced us to acknowledge that our understanding of what constitutes an intellectual, what constitutes a public, and what we see as a desirable relationship between the two is deeply grounded in cultural traditions and political structures which differ from one national context to the next.

A key strength of the approach we took was this constant movement between theory and practice: practice understood both in terms of the front-line perspectives of our many guest speakers and in terms of the applied assignments which had students doing blog posts, op-eds, print and radio interviews, and digital humanities projects, all growing out of their own research.

A key challenge I’ve struggled with has been at what stage in a student’s career such training would be most valuable. On the one hand, those students who took this class in their first term in graduate school felt that it provided them with a strong overview of the full range of opportunities and practices they might want to explore in their career. People talked about  the class as “pulling away the curtain” and helping them to see the actual work that went into becoming a scholar. On the other, some of these incoming students did not yet have a fully developed sense of themselves as a scholar; they did not have perhaps enough research of their own yet to draw upon as they started to do these more public-facing projects.

Some of the students said that others in their cohort not in the class had joked about this being a course in how to become an academic “rock star.” But, I think by the end of the term, we were all clear that this kind of public facing work occurs at every level of visibility and access. It can involve sharing what you know at a PTA or school board meeting. It can involve work within a hyperlocal community or through an online forum. These many different scales and localities of communication reflect the affordances of a more networked culture, and they force us to move from a world where public intellectuals are superstar scholars, a select few, to one where these activities are a normal part of how many if not most scholars go about their work.

There’s no question given the success I experienced in this class, and given how meaningful both my students and I found this process, that this subject will become a standard part of my teaching rotation here at USC. I am also hoping that I may inspire more faculties around the world to try teaching a similar kind of class to their students. Annenberg’s Dean, Ernie Wilson, has sparked debate recently about what is required to teach communication scholars how to communicate effectively what our field is about. I suspect that such classes might force all of us — faculty and students — to grapple with the complexities of that issue. My class worked in part because I have such a great group of colleagues here (and at other institutions who joined the class by Skype) who are applying some concept of the public intellectual in their own work. I am lucky to be at an institution which is creative and generous with each other about what constitutes scholarship and which is more open than many schools about the ways new digital platforms and practices might be expanding the arena of public discourse. Annenberg supports experimentation and innovation in ways that more conservative institutions might not.

But, I believe that teachers at many schools could look around them and find rich and compelling examples in their own backyard of scholars who are doing different kinds of work in part as a response to the expanded range of communication options we confront at the current moment. Each such course would be different, because it needs to be grounded in your own institutional context, but I hope that others will see the value in incorporating this kind of teaching into their school’s curriculum. And if you do so, please share some of your experiences with me and my readers.

The Prosumption Presumption

 

There is a growing conversation about the nature of participatory culture (and digital media more generally) in Post-Communist Poland. Late last year, I featured a series of blog posts by Polish scholars looking at various aspects of this phenomenon and before that, I shared a report discussing media-sharing practices there. This week has seen the release of an important new report, Prosumption in the Pop Industry:An Analysis of the Polish Entertainment Industry, issued by the Local Knowledge Foundation, and prepared by Piotr Siuda Radosław Bomba Magdalena Kamińska Grzegorz D. Stunża Anna Szylar Marek Troszyński  and Tomasz Żaglewski.

As part of their process, the researchers reached out to myself, along with Mark Deuze and George Ritzer, for our insights into what the report calls “prosumption,” and they ran the transcript of our responses at the end of the report. I have sought their permission to share some of my response to their questions here: There’s more from me as well as responses to these questions from Mark and George if you follow this link, where you can read a English language version of the report as a whole. The interview was conducted by Michał Chudoliński. (See bio below)

I should say at the outset that I am not a big fan of the concept of “prosumption,” which the field has inherited from Alvin Toffler. It assumes a kind of hierarchical relationship where the top level is occupied by the professional and the bottom by the consumer, with the amateur and prosumption layers existing in between. It assumes that the primary goal of amateurs is to gain entry into — or directly influence — the professional sphere of media-makers, and in my experience, this is more true of some fans or some kinds of fans for others. Across my work, I have documented cases where fans seek to actively influence mainstream media content, and others, where fans seek to construct their own culture, for their own purposes, and just want the corporate media to leave them the hell alone. Some of this has to do with their assumptions about whether the producers are apt to “get it right” if they seek to act on the fans’ desires, whether they have a history of being exploited or marginalized by corporate media rather than embraced, whether they see their pleasures as subcultural or dominant, and as such, the idea of prosumption is more apt to be embraced by those in dominant groups (i.e. white male straight Cis middle class etc.) rather than those who find themselves in more subordinate positions. I do not want to close the door entirely — I think there are ways that at least some fans have gained greater influence, there are always new and emerging models which we need to confront with an open mind and a wait-and-see attitude, etc.

Some of this skepticism comes through in some of my responses here, but I was not asked to directly address the concept of prosumption per se as a way of describing the phenomenon this report discusses. I was much more enthusiastic about the process of fans and producers working together towards shared ends a decade ago when I wrote Convergence Culture, than I am today, after six or seven years of “Web 2.0″ corporate practices, which have just as often sought to strip mine fandom as a source of revenue and labor,than to act in ways that democratize and diversify who gets to participate in our culture. Yet, I think this report, which gives us a glimpse into how these questions are being thought about in industries that emerge in a different cultural, political, and economic context, may be a good moment for some further reflections on the nature of “prosumption” and where we are at in terms of corporate relations with fandom.

MC: In your opinion, what is the general level of prosumption in the pop culture industry globally? By prosumption, we mean the manner in which the pop cultural industry uses the activities and commitment of a mass culture audience to promote specific brands or franchises.

HJ: I have not seen anyone offer a quantitative measurement for how much user-generated content is being produced, under what conditions, in which contexts, around which content, etc. I would not, in any case, be the right person to try to address this question from a quantitative point of view. A part of the problem is that prosumption, as you are defining it, is a sliding scale. There are many forms of amateur cultural production in response to mass media fandom which is neither solicited nor valued by corporate rights holders. This is the realm of fan culture as we have historically understood it. There are forms of amateur production which make money only indirectly for corporate interests, such as the way content travels on Facebook, Twitter, and to some degree, YouTube, where the company does not really care what is being produced but simply that their platform is seeing a certain amount of traffic that comes in ways they know how to capitalize on. There are forms of cultural production where user-generated content is curated and harvested, so that the ‘best material’ gets shared with the larger community but the bulk of it ends up on the cutting room floor: this is often true in terms of various design contests around brands. There are forms of cultural production which are semi-commercial and semi-professional: much closer to the original meaning of prosumption. Here, both sides may profit from what is produced and shared: see for example Etsy or Amazon’s Kindle Worlds for two models of what this might look like. To me, these revenue sharing based models are very different from many of the kinds of free labor which have been critiqued by Marxist theorists. So, until we have a better vocabulary for talking about these and a range of other arrangements, I doubt we can come up with anything approaching a definitive answer to your question.

MC: What are the reasons for the emergence of prosumption in mass culture?

HJ: Again, to paint in broad sweeps, there was a great deal of grassroots cultural production across human history: it was simply localized or personalized, produced and shared within a geographic community and/or within a localized subculture. Many of these forms of cultural production were pushed from view by the rise of mass culture, but they did not totally disappear. We can trace many examples of participatory culture at any given moment across the 20th century and many struggles to gain greater access to the means of cultural production and circulation. These various local practices provided the initial seeds of today’s prosumption. What happened though is that net- worked communications made these alternative cultural practices more visible; they could be shared easily across geographic boundaries; there were hybrid media spaces where different subcultures could observe and learn from each other; and people with shared interests could find each other. As this wave of participatory culture moved across networked society, then other institutions responded, seeking to channel and commodify participation in the various ways we discussed above. And that is what results in Web 2.0 business models and discussions of user-generated content. The problem with that model is that it defines all of the participants in relation to the tools, platforms, or content producers and not in relation to their collective goals as members of particular kinds of communities of practice.

MC: How do you expect pop culture prosumption to develop globally?

HJ: We are seeing examples in most parts of the world at this point, but its spread is uneven, not simply because of limited access to technological affordances, but also for cultural, legal, and political factors, given the ways that collective cultural production is bound up with issues of free expression and democratic citizenship, given that expanding chances to produce and share culture and knowledge can have a destabilizing effect on established hierarchies. But, we do not want to think about this purely in terms of a spread of one dominant participatory culture across the planet, though we can see people interacting at small scales via social media across national boundaries. Ethan Zuckerman’s new book does a convincing job of showing us all of the boundaries and barriers that affect who communicates with whom or who cares about what on the World Wide Web. We are also seeing local traditions of cultural production, say, the samba schools in Rio, assert themselves through digital media, and thus finding new forms of cultural expression and social connection.

MC: In your opinion, what strategies will be implemented to increase the significance of prosumption in pop culture? What will be the role of the Internet in this process?

 

HJ: I am less sure I want to increase prosumption as you have defined it above, where it is an extension of the commercial logics of corporate mass media or part of the new emerging logics of Web 2.0. What I want to promote is a more participatory culture where we expand access to the means of production and circulation to more of the population, with access defined here not simply in terms of tools and platforms, but also social and cultural resources. We need to promote a broad array of different models for production and circulation, many of which are not governed by the motives of neoliberal capitalism, some of which follow more closely forms of gift or reputational economies where creativity is motivated by social rather than material rewards.

 

MC: Pop cultural prosumption is more or less linked to fandom as a life- style. Fans who receive free samples, help to organize conventions, or re- view promotional copies are regarded differently by their community. Their status among other fans changes—they gain popularity and respect and their role as experts becomes more and more important. Have you noticed this phenomenon?

 

HJ: Yes and no. I think that in the US, fans are often distrustful of those who become more fully imbricated into the commercial system. Forms of prosumption may or may not actually value fan expertise or respect fan traditions. Certainly, there are more casual consumers who feel more comfortable remaining in these corporately policed spaces, but I think it is an open question whether these spaces will ever fully replace more grassroots spaces, which often actively resist corporate motives or question ideologies. Also keep in mind that fandom is only one form of participatory culture and only one of the sets of cultural communities that motivate prosumption. It might be interesting to look at something like Etsy, which certainly attracts some forms of fan production/consumption, but also taps into older crafter traditions that have often de- fined themselves in direct opposition to mass culture.

 

MC: In the traditional media model, the producers imposed their desires on the audience. What is the situation today and how is it changing? Is there equality between fans and producers? In fact, whose arguments are more important when it comes to conflicts of interests?

HJ: We are nowhere near ‘equality’ at the present time, but there have been shifts in the relationships between producers and consumers, at least as I observe them in the US. I would hate to universalize this. It has always been the case that producers have sought to control both the distribution and interpretation of their content as much as possible, and fans have often sought to elude that control to pursue their own interests. No one can really control what happens to media content once it reaches the hands of the consumer, but consumers have had difficulty influencing production decisions. This is why John Tulloch described fans as a “powerless elite.” Today, what fans make of the raw materials producers provide them is much more publically visible. More and more people know about fan fiction or are watching fan remix videos, and fans are collectively exerting much stronger pressure on producers to respect their interests as they are making decisions than impact the production. Fans are also involved in the circulation of the content, as more stuff travels through digital social networks, as well as across broadcast networks. As this has happened, producers have started to reappraise their relationships with fans. They initially acted out of fear of losing control. It is now clear they have already lost control in that sense, so they are seeking to court fans. Clearly, they would like to exert as much control as possible, but they are also having to give grounds on many traditional constraints on audience behavior as they are coming to realize that engagement is a key currency in the contemporary media economy.

MC: How do you evaluate pop culture producers’ tendency to employ fans (i.e., a fan becomes a professional)? Is it a common practice? How will it evolve in the next few years?

HJ: This is still a minority practice, but it is growing. Of course, in some senses, the line is an arbitrary one. Obviously, most people who produce popular media also consume it, many of them were ‘fans’ in the broadest sense or otherwise why would they enter the industry. But the process of training and recruitment as a professional often involves a reorientation where you are discouraged from seeing the world from the consumer perspective, and recruits often come to see consumers as very strange creatures. What we are seeing is that some producers are consciously bringing some of their most vocal fans ‘into the tent,’ i.e. inviting them to help advise the production on the desires of their community and in return, act as translators back to the worlds they came from. This works only in so far as these ‘fans’ are ‘representative’ of or ‘meaning- fully tied’ to the fan world in the first place. It is not as if fans speak with the same voice; there are all kinds of tensions within fandom and thus, there is a tendency for producers to recruit certain kinds of fans and leave others outside, perhaps even more marginalized than before. Fans make a distinction between affirmational and transforma- tional fans, i.e. fans who celebrate and master the storyworld as it is given to them vs fans who recreate the story materials to better serve their own interests. It is been much easier for producers to absorb affirmational fans than transformational ones, and this has gender implications since the first category is heavily male and the second more heavily female. So, unless the producers develop a deeper understanding of fandom’s own diversity, hierarchy, and traditions, there is a danger that they will over-weigh some fans at the expense of reaching the full range of consumers who are invested in their property.

MC: Majority of the fans consider their favorite protagonists to be beyond mere characters from a TV series or a graphic story. Rather, they are symbolic figures who inspire and have an opinion about important ethical truths or the contemporary world. Is such a perception deeply rooted among fans or is it becoming stronger, perhaps, due to some new phenomena?

 

HJ: I would say that stories have always existed as mythical resources through which we ask core questions about ourselves, our values, and our world. We understand this clearly enough when we are talking about folk tales, myths, and legends of the more historic variety, but when we talk about mass culture, the commercial dimensions—the commodity status of the text—can often drown out our appreciation of the symbolic roles such stories play within our culture. There has been a tendency to say that fans are confusing fantasy with reality—and that is almost never the case—or that they are ‘reading too much into’ popular fictions which were made for ‘entertainment purposes,’ and that is also not right. They are using these stories as springboards for important discussions they want to be having about the world, and they are using the characters as symbolic or mythical resources within those exchanges. That is why they want to rewrite or remix them: because they stand for something and they can be used to express ideas collectively that need to be heard. That is why fans are not content simply consuming: they ask questions, they tell stories, and they remix content, to see if they can more fully realize the symbolic potentials they see within this material. They are going to be doing this regardless of the commercial frames you put around that. Some kinds of prosumption practices can build partnerships with fans, while others impose limits and constraints or exploit fan labor in ways that will damage that relationship. Where this happens producers will face backlash from fans or fans will simply route around the constraints to more fully satisfy their goals. Right now, fans are much more sophisticated at navigating through the social media realm than producers are and have a much longer history of thinking about grassroots cultural production and circulation.

Principal researcher:

Piotr Siuda – an author and a coordinator of “Prosumption in the Pop Industry” project. PhD in sociology, Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Sociology at the Kazimierz Wielki University (Poland), author of Religion and the Internet (2010), The Cultures of Prosumption (2012), Japonisation. Anime and its Polish Fans (being published). His research interests are the sociology of culture and social aspects of the Internet.

e-mail: piotr.siuda@gmail.com

Interviewer:
Michał Chudoliński is an alumni of Collegium Civitas in Warsaw, where he majored in Sociology and ran the Comics Club. In the years 2003-2006 he ran the comics department at „BatCave”, the most popular website about Batman in Poland and is currently the editor of “KZ” magazine (The most recognised Polish on-line magazine dedicated to comics) and the blog “Gotham in the rain” (A new blog, dedicated entirely to the Dark Knight of Gotham). He publishes in: “Nowa Fantastyka”, “Czas Fantastyki”, “2+3D”, “Ha!art”, and on the pages: “Polityka.pl”, “Noircafe”, and “ArtPapier”. Websites: http://www.kzet.pl/, http://www.gothamwdeszczu.com.pl/.

E-mail: michal.chudolinski@gmail.com

On Geeks and White Whales: Some Videos of This Term’s Events

As we are wrapping things down for the term here at USC this week, I wanted to share videos of some of the public events I have helped to organize this past semester. Specifically, I am going to be focusing today on two sets of events — one focused on science fiction and the other on Reading in a Participatory Culture.

As part of my role as the Chief Advisor to the Annenberg Innovation Lab, I have launched a new lecture series, “Geek Speaks.” Each semester, we will host one or more events bringing together top artists and thinkers who work in the areas of games, comics, science fiction, fandom, or cult media. Part of the thinking here is that such programing will increase the Lab’s visibility with students at USC who might have an interest in participating in the Lab’s activities, which include work on digital books, social media, social hacking, and the future of entertainment. For our first program, we focused on The Uses (and Abuses) of Science Fiction. Here’s how we described the event:

 

From its conception, science fiction was a genre which has encouraged speculation at the limits of known science, sometimes in the name of popular science education, sometimes as a mode of theory formulation and discussion. Across its history, the range of topics that science fiction might address has expanded to include topics in media, communications, gender and sexuality, race, political philosophy, and the social sciences more generally. Increasingly, science fiction concepts and themes are being folded directly into the design process at major companies, as they seek to identify potential products and services and prototype the needs and desires of consumers.

On this semester’s Geek Speaks panel, each of the speakers: Cory Doctorow, Henry Jenkins, and Brian David Johnson, has done work exploring the interplay between speculative fiction and real world communities, and each is also a hardcore fans of the science fiction genre. In this free-wheeling conversation, they will discuss the roles that science fiction has played, for better or worse, in shaping the ways we think about innovation and confront the challenges of designing for the future.

All three of us have a long-standing fascination with science fiction as a literary and media genre and with the role which speculative fiction plays in helping to shape our expectations about the future. Johnson has been a key advocate of science fiction prototyping in his role as the chief Futurist at Intel, and he recently produced a book, Vintage Tomorrows, which explores what designers might learn from the Steampunk movement. I wrote the introduction to the book and Doctorow was one of the key people Johnson’s team interviewed. Doctorow, of course, will be well known to my readers as one of the best contemporary science fiction authors, as someone whose young adult novels have contributed to the civic education of a generation of young geeks, and who has been a key activist fighting for our digital rights through his involvement in the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Below you can see the video of our USC conversation.

Geek Speaks: The Uses (and Abuses) of Science Fiction from USC Annenberg Innovation Lab on Vimeo.

We billed ourselves as the Three Geeks, inspired in part by the Three Tenors. Johnson has suggested that when we speak together, you get to hear the perspectives of the fan, the futurist, and the activist, each of whom draws inspiration from the power of speculative fiction. In this exchange, we ended up talking a lot about utopian and dystopian conceptions of the future and the work each performs in our reflections about technology and politics.  We had done a similar event (albeit much shorter) at the Tools for Change conference in New York City earlier this year, and the chemistry was so good that we have been seeking out other venues where we can continue the dialogue.  Here’s the video of the earlier NYC version, which ended up being focused much more on the future of publishing.

The second set of events was organized around the release of our new book, Reading in a Participatory Culture: Remixing Moby-Dick in the Literature Classroom. This book was inspired by the work of playwright, director, actor and educator Ricardo Pitts-Wiley from the Mixed Magic Theater in Rhode Island. Pitts-Wiley had gone into prisons to work with incarcerated youth to get them to read Moby-Dick, no easy task for any reader, by challenging them to reimagine the characters for the 21st century. A 19th century novel about the whaling trade became through their eyes a way of reflecting on the contemporary drug trade and the world of street gangs. Inspired by these exchanges, Pitts-Wiley developed a stage production, Moby-Dick: Then and Now, which involved an adult cast doing Melville’s original and a youth cast doing the contemporary remix. This whole process inspired my New Media Literacies team back at MIT and we ended up developing a whole curriculum designed to help students and teachers reflect on the place of remix as an expressive practice, moving back and forth between Herman Melville’s own writing and reading practices (as explored by literary critic Wyn Kelley) and contemporary forms of remixing, including fan fiction writing practices (as explored through my own research).

To coincide with the book’s release, we decided to bring Pitts-Wiley to USC and introduce his work and its underlying vision to Los Angeles. This effort was inspired by one of our Annenberg graduate students, Alexandrina Agloro, who has gotten to know Ricardo while working on an educational ARG at Brown University. Our plan was to bring Ricardo to LA and get him to work with local high school (Los Angeles High School for the Arts, Gertz-Ressler High School, and YouthBuild Boyle Heights) and college (USC) students to mount a production of Moby-Dick: Then and Now.

As we were planning the event, we discovered that the Los Angeles Public Library was running a whole series of events celebrating Moby-Dick and its author. They were nice enough to fly out my collaborator Wyn Kelley to join Ricardo and I for an event at the start of this project. You can hear the audio of that exchange here. AS part of their efforts, the LA Public Libraries commissioned a documentary film, My Moby-Dick, which included reflections on the novel by a range of well-known Los Angeles residents, including the techno musician Moby (who took his name from the novel), the food critic Jonathan Gold, the comedian Buck Henry, my USC colleague Howard Rodman, and yours truly, among many others. The film was screened as part of a theatrical extravaganza which included live performances by a range of local actors and musicians, including Stacey Keach, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Charlayne Woodard, Rinde Eckert, and Alan Mandell. Below is the opening segment from that documentary, some of which was produced by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris of Little Miss Sunshine fame.

My Moby Dick – In the Beginning from Library Foundation of LA on Vimeo.

Ricardo was able to cast the play using local youth actors in under a week, leaving him less than a week to rehearse his staged reading. I was able to sit in on some of the rehearsals and watch him shape performances from a multi-racial cast. And we were proud to see so many people from South Central Los Angeles turn out for the performance to support their sons, daughters, students, and classmates. The video below will show you what the audience got to see — a dynamic performance of the play, followed with my discussion with Pitts-Wiley about the process which brought it to the Annenberg Auditorium.

Enjoy!

Participatory Poland (Part Seven): Brafitting: From a Participatory Community to a Marketing Strategy, and From Poland to America

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

Brafitting: From a Participatory Community to a Marketing Strategy, and from Poland to America

Aleksandra Mochocka

Kazimierz Wielki University in Bydgoszcz

 

In the beginning, there was (almost) nothing. Put simply, the communist economy neither encouraged, nor enabled the mass production of well-made and visually appealing lingerie. With no incentive from the market forces, and no technology to support the process, nobody seemed to be specifically interested in manufacturing bras in Poland after the WWII and before the collapse of the communist regime.

Then the cornucopia began: with the advent of free economy, bras of all colours and prints gradually flooded the market, or market places literally, as private entrepreneurs started to import lingerie from foreign wholesalers, including cheap Chinese no-name bras. Yet only a limited number of women were able to find a bra that would fit their needs. And by “needs” I do not mean the personal taste in colour or style, but first and foremost – the need of a particular, individual woman to feel comfortable wearing her bra, regardless of her body’s type/size and other characteristic.

In short, the phenomenon of bra-craze can be seen as an example of de Certeau’s (1988) “strategies” and “tactics”. For de Certeau, strategies are a part of the system that upholds the balance of power; representing organisational structures, the producers calculate the most efficient strategies available from the position of power (xix). Subjected to the strategies, the consumers are far from being passive, as they develop cunning tactics to regain some of the power by subterfuge. On one hand, there have been the marketing strategies of manufacturers/wholesalers/retailers, and the official channels of bra distribution; on the other hand, sharing know-how and pieces of advice on the Internet, the community of women has developed some inventive solutions in response (and as a form of self-defence). The process has nearly gone full circle, with manufactures introducing more and more diversified size options, and commercial bra fitting services being offered even by the companies which have very little to do with the original idea of breast-friendly bras, and still selling a limited range of bras. Braffiting has become a profitable business.

The brafitting movement in Poland, or stanikomania (which translates to bra-mania or bra-craze) could be perceived as a participatory culture phenomenon related to the construction of femininity and the body image issues. The advent of the braffiting lobby was closely connected with the grassroots Internet communication (discussion boards and blogs); initially, the whole idea was to share know-how and find some alternative buyer tactics to select a bra to fit a body, regardless of its shape or size, instead of adjusting the body to fit a bra. Some activists may have had adequate professional background (e.g. in IT, marketing or gender studies) and more professionally oriented  aims, but for the majority of users it was a fan activity, with a low threshold of involvement thanks to the Internet technologies.

If we consider the characteristics of participatory culture as suggested by Jenkins et al. (2009), bra-craze seems to be a perfect example; apart from the above mentioned “low barriers to […] engagement,” there is also the “strong support for creating and sharing one’s creations with others” (for example, direct encouragements to share one’s experiences, or blog functionalities facilitating uploading photos and comments) as well as “informal mentorship” (sharing knowledge as the main aim of the movement); the participants strongly “believe that their contributions matter” (accounts of successful conversions or illuminations of bra-illiterate women initiated by the bra-maniacs abound on the forums and blogs) and last but not least, that everyone can (yet do not have to) participate (p. 7).

Before this revolution (and this is a term bra-maniacs actually use), women would often feel ashamed of their “irregular” bodies for which there were no comfortable or attractive bras. One’s breasts were deemed too big, or too small, or too narrow, or too perky, or too bulky, or too saggy to fit in the bra. The bra was the ultimate measure of one’s body, the Cinderella’s shoe style. (By no means is the problem exclusive to post-communist economies; consider Victoria’s Secret bras – beautiful designs in a dramatically limited size range, excluding most of the female demographic.)

The bra-mania has been (and still remains) primarily Internet-based; sharing information and connecting those who know how-to with those who seek knowledge, women of the bra-maniac may be perceived as a neotribe, to use Maffesoli’s (1996) term. Bra-mania seems to share the “efflorescence and effervescence of neotribalism which, in various forms, refuses to identify with any political project whatsoever, to subscribe to any sort of finality, and whose sole raison d’être is a preoccupation with the collective present” (p. 75). The common experience of looking for and successfully finding a comfortable (and beautiful) bra against the odds of free market economy and producers’ strategies is the unifying factor here, and the bra-maniacs feel that they belong together.

They also feel significantly empowered, although their activities are centred around buying/consuming a product, a commodity designed to re-shape their bodies into socially accepted (and expected) gendered forms. Is this postfeminism in action?

Certainly, the bra-maniacs are not the ones to burn their bras (a bra-maniac can have an impressive collection of several bras, and some bra-maniacs sleep in their bras, finding it beneficial for the condition of their breasts). There has been the action and there have already been the results, as with the opportunities created by on-line shopping and the growing pressure of the lobbyists, more and more retailers and manufacturers started to change the approach to their products, offering a wider selection of different size options and designs. Brafitting has become mainstream, and Polish companies, such as Ewa Michalak or BiuBiu, have started to enter the US market.

 

The miserable life of the “unconverted”

Until the mid 2000s, most Polish manufacturers, wholesalers and retailers felt more comfortable offering only four or five different cup sizes (A, B, C, D, and sometimes E) combined with only four to five band sizes, which gave circa twenty-odd options to choose from (Kulpa 2011). (To illustrate the point, imagine that shoes are offered in two size options only, say 7 and 8.) Obviously, women would have felt comfortable in bras that do not flatten the breasts, or slip away, or pinch, or cut into the flesh, making the breast painfully bulge over the rim of the cups. Sadly, with twenty-something bra sizes on the market, most women had to satisfy themselves with lingerie that might look attractive (and/or be cheap), but was far from good when it came to the comfort of use.

Remember the shoe analogy?Imagine walking in shoes two sizes too small for your feet. It is going to hurt, right? Obviously, if you were looking for new shoes, nobody would persuade you to buy such a pair. However, if you were a woman looking for a new bra, most shopping assistants would persuade you to buy a bra that hurts you and distorts your body, humiliating and shaming you on the way (the bra is perfect – if it fails to fit, it is your fault).

The reason why is as simple as that: the retailer fails to have the proper size range in stock, as there should be at least as many as 60 to 80 different bra size options available if an average woman is to be served (Kulpa 2011). With a limited size range, you would have to select one of the twenty options, instead of selecting one out of eighty. Chance is, you bra is going to be uncomfortable. And that was the situation in Poland well into the 2000s.

Nevertheless, around the middle of the decade there were some socio-economic and technological changes. From 2006 Polish people could emigrate to Great Britain freely, and many took their chances. Internet shopping became more and more popular, and British currency had a convenient exchange rate. There had already been British lingerie brands, such as Panache (http://www.panache-lingerie.com/gb/ ), that offered bras in the sizes unheard of in Poland. The access to such bras inspired women to develop some very specific know-how. In July 2005 a user known as Butter77 started an Internet forum, called Lobby Biuściastych (The Buxom Ladies Lobby) http://forum.gazeta.pl/forum/f,32203,Lobby_Biusciastych_.html, now hosted on gazeta.pl site (as of today, there are 268585 posts and counting). Soon some of the most active participants of the forum started their own sites, the most famous being Stanikomania (http://stanikomania.blox.pl/html ) run by Kasica (Katarzyna Kulpa), which started in January 2007, and Balkonetka (March 2008)  (http://balkonetka.pl/# ), run by Mauzonka (Julia K. Szopa). Answering the question about the Lobby Biuściastych origins, Butters77 (2007) explains that

the story how it started is quite simple and related to practical issues mostly:) As far as I remember, I used to have problems buying a bra for fuller breasts, specifically: a bra with big cups and tight underbust band. It was verging on a miracle to find one in a Polish store. What was offered to me was the regular option (that is ‘small breasts == tight band’ or “huge breasts = huge band’).

I rebelled and thought, that if there big cups existed, it had to be possible to attach them to a band smaller than 80. I miraculously managed to find a couple of exceptions, which made me believe that it is right to advertise such exceptions.

[…] the forum was meant to be a place for the bigger-breast women where they could exchange information concerning lingerie manufacturers, recommend tested fashions, help to find the proper size etc.. And first of all – where they could discourage themselves from yielding to harmful market standards. Joining in over time, other “lobbyists” provided invaluable help in developing this idea. (translation mine; http://broszka.pl/alfabet-nie-konczy-sie-na-d,ap )

The idea of rebellion was hanging in the air: the consumers realised that they can be prosumers, directly influencing the market. The bra-mania movement has grown upon the principles of prosumerism, collective intelligence, and participation.

What was the doctrine of the newly minted bra-craze movement? You cannot tell what the “volume” of the cup is, unless you know the combination of the cup size (e.g. F) and the band size (e.g. 70). As follows, there is no such a thing as a uniform “A” cup or “D” cup. Labelling a woman as a “D cup wearer” means nothing, because 60D is a totally different size than, for example, 110D (as explained here http://stanikomania.blox.pl/2010/01/Ta-slynna-miseczka-D.html ).

A very important idea was also that all the lettering and numbering should be used only to sort out bra sizes, not to label or categorise women, as in the notorious “she is a flat-chested A” style. Moreover, it was emphasised that the bra band should uphold up to 80% of breasts weight and fairly tight. The cups should be large enough, with the underwire sitting on the ribcage. And now comes the ingenious part: women were recommended to ask for the bra which had a 5 to 10 cm smaller band than they would have been offered usually, and the cup size three or four times bigger. It was the clever trick, a consumer tactic: the better bras had been already there, yet dedicated for other women, and the trick was to claim their use (for example, if a size 85B bra would be unstable and flatten the breasts, the idea was to ask – against the shop assistant’s recommendation – for a 75D bra, with bigger cups and a tighter fit; the band, being elastic, would expand). It was strictly the question of know-how, not the question of a new product on the market, but along with this tactic went the demand for more size options.

 

The “conversion” or the “enlightenment”

The women posting on the Lobby Biuściastych forum would often compare finding a proper bra to a transforming experience (there is a thread called “How I profited from changing my bra size to the one I should wear” – some accounts are deeply personal and passionate http://forum.gazeta.pl/forum/w,32203,75213023,,Co_mi_dala_zmiana_rozmiaru_stanika_na_wlasciwy_.html?v=2 ). In the lingo of the Lobby the terms such as  “enlightenment”, “conversion” or “de-bra-fing” (my attempt at translating the Polish coinage ostanikowanie) are used. Women would write about the physical and psychological comfort they have gained.

To quote a young woman I’ve personally asked  about her experience with professional brafitting service (made possible because of the years of bra-maniacs‘ lobbying), it is “like getting her breasts back”. Lots of “converts” compare their experience to an epiphany of a kind, dividing their lives into “before the conversion” and “after the conversion” phases. It is only partially tongue in cheek. Jumping and running have suddenly become possible without that embarrassing threat of letting one’s breasts loose. There is no longer the pain in the back. Small-breasted women suddenly discover that they “have breasts”. Nearly everyone feels “slimmer”. All feel more attractive.

The scope of this text does not allow for a profound analysis of these aspects. It should be noted, however, that they are open for discussion. The lobbyists would often stress the fact that, as a rule, their primary aim is not to dress up or adjust to fit in with male expectations (though the voices about getting a better bra to get the breasts in the better shape to be more sexually attractive are not uncommon). To quote the founder of Balkonetka.pl, Julia K. Szopa (2009):

the pro-bust communities are not only about helping one another to find a well-fitted and good-looking bras, although this is their main function. The mission they have is to change the way women think about themselves: from “I’m a freak, there is nothing I can wear, I’m a loser” to “I’m a fine woman, expecting that the world would allow me to feel good with my breasts!”. (translation mine; http://balkonetka.pl/2009/1/9/biusciaste-spolecznosc-wcale-nie-marginalna )

However, this claim might be worth reconsidering in the light of theories developed by Susan Bordo (2003), Carole Spitzak (1990) or Vickie Shields (2002), to name just a few scholars focused on the gendered body image. Are the lobbyists doing it for themselves or rather to themselves for the sake of the male gaze?

Another issue is the body image and the conversion and subversion of the cultural norms regulating its “proper” formula. Women with the so-called bigger breasts are still expected to have them reduced or concealed, but the lobbyists’ actions have contributed to a change in the approach. Big breasts on an “everyday normal woman”, previously considered an indecency and meant to be hidden (flattened with an uncomfortable bad-fitted bra or even with a special reducing bra), could be supported with a high-end wiring and netting and exposed as a pair of apple-shaped, full on top balls separated by a tempting valley (to use some bra-maniac lingo).

However, careful not to exclude the small breast women as they are, the lobbyists tend to attribute positive value to bigger/fuller breasts, somehow reinforcing the big breast ideal. One way or another (small breasted or big breasted), many lobbyists discovered that they did not need plastic surgery to feel satisfied with their bodies, the question of how plastic surgery (breast augmentation or reduction) is perceived by the women belonging to the movement constitutes another intriguing issue for some further studies.

The lobbyists have not limited themselves to producing posts, blog entries and You Tube videos. They proliferated and proselytised, attracting the attention of media (a short review of the movement and its reception by a sociologist Marta Klimowicz, 2009, http://klimowicz.blox.pl/2009/01/Lobby-Biusciastych-wydarzenie-roku-2008.html ). Where there is an Internet article devoted to bras, or a bra advertisement, with an option to leave a comment or “like/dislike” it, bra-maniacs go for it. A brand offering its limited size range bras, however beautiful visually they could be, can expect a very strong feedback. Moreover, from the early years on, there have been regular “real-life” meetings, bra exchanges and bra-fitting events, as well as charity/community work. One of the latest examples of such affirmative actions is the workshop organised by a lobby member nicked Bra-dreamer in a mental care home for intellectually challenged women in Warsaw (http://forum.gazeta.pl/forum/w,32203,146441486,147671905,Re_projekt_biustonoszowy_prosba_i_propozycja.html).

 

Bust-friendly brands

As Szopa (2008) has it, “in the 1990s one was virtually unable to buy a 65J size bra in Poland” (translation mine; http://balkonetka.pl/2008/3/16/ale-o-co-chodzi-z-tym-uswiadomieniem ). The situation has changed dramatically. In the stores and on-line stores founded by the lobbyists one can find a plethora of bras, but the demand influenced some other stores as well. New brands have been launched successfully and old ones offer a wider variety of sizes. A Polish brand worth mentioning in this context is Ewa Michalak (http://www.ewa-michalak.pl/ ), offering bras in sizes from 60A to 105HH; the models used in Michalak’s footage have different body types and their pictures are not digitally enhanced, the idea being that the customer has the right to see the product presented by a “real” person. Another branch of merchandise has surfaced: namely, breast-friendly clothing, represented by BiuBiu (http://www.biubiu.pl/ ) and Urkye (http://urkye.pl/ ).

Brafitting has been transformed into business, too. Some of the activists started their consultation businesses, and there has been the obvious corporate reaction. At present, almost every bra store offers some kind of brafitting services, though in some cases the quality of the fitting could still be dubious. Brafitting has become a catch-phrase, sometimes with no real reference to the original bra-maniac ideals.

As more and more Polish brands produce bras in size options unavailable in the USA, American customers decide to buy their bras here. Some of them have already turned to blogging and write the reviews of Michalak or OnlyHer bras; to name only: Voluptous and Beautiful http://voluptuouslythin.wordpress.com/, Miss Underpinnings http://www.missunderpinnings.com/ or Thin and Curvy http://www.thinandcurvy.com/ . Finally, collaborating with the founder of Bratabase, the founder of Balkonetka, Julia K. Szopa, has just launched the Wellfitting.com platform.

 

Sources 

Bordo, Susan (2003). Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body. Berkely, California: University of California Press.

 

de Certeau, Michel (1988). Practice of Everyday Life. vol 1. Berkely, California: University of California Press.

 

Jenkins, Henry et al. (2009). Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century. http://www.macfound.org/media/article_pdfs/JENKINS_WHITE_PAPER.PDF  Accessed 2013.10.31

 

Klimowicz, Marta (2009). http://klimowicz.blox.pl/2009/01/Lobby-Biusciastych-wydarzenie-roku-2008.html Accessed 2013.10.30

 

Kulpa, Katarzyna (2011). “Dyskretny urok biustonosza.”  http://lawendowydom.com.pl/dyskretny-urok-biustonosza/ Accessed 2013.10.30

 

Maffesoli, Michel (1996). The Time of the Tribes: The Decline of Individualism in Mass Society. London: Sage.

 

Shields, Vickie R. (2002). Measuring Up: How Advertising Affects Self-Image. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

 

Spitzak, Carole (1990). Confessing Excess: Women and the Politics of Body Reduction. Albany: State University of New york Press.

 

Aleksandra Mochocka is a Literature and Non-digital game researcher with a Ph. D. in Literature, working at the Faculty of English Studies at the Kazimierz Wielki University in Bydgoszcz, Poland. A member of the Polish sf&f fandom, she has translated D&D books and co-authored several RPG-related articles. She is a founding member of the Games Research Association of Poland and a historical reenactor. She has published articles on science fiction theory, Orson Scott Card, table-top role playing games (e.g. “The Evaluation of Elusiveness”, in States of Play. Nordic Larp Around the World, Pohjoismaisen roolipelaamisen seura, 2012), alternate reality games, and interactivity and intermediality in codex books. Her recent research has been focused on the relationship between literature and games (e.g. board games), as well as on texts (e.g. product reviews) produced by prosumers.

Participatory Poland (Part Six): Fighters, Martyrs, and Missionaries for Manga: The Early Days of Polish Manga and Anime Fandom

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

Fighters, Martyrs, and Missionaries for Manga: The Early Days of Polish Manga and Anime Fandom

Katarzyna “Hitohai” Wasylak
Karkonosze College in Jelenia Góra

In 2012, a manga convention Animatsuri in Warsaw featured a discussion panel entitled “True Fans Are No More.” The subject referred to the nostalgic commentaries frequently reiterated by middle-aged fans recalling the “olden days” when manga and anime market was hardly existent in Poland. The life of manga fans in the late 90s was filled with quests: to obtain VHS cassettes with Japanese animation, to get any manga in any language, to bring the existence of manga and anime to broader awareness, to create positive publicity for their hobby, to generate more fans and build a nation-wide network, to improve the availability of manga in their country, and finally, to find a partner who would accept their weird hobby. There were many hardships awaiting the fans: hostility experienced from the society and other fandoms, conflicts within their own fandom, expenses connected with importing manga merchandise, etc.

Since the data about the beginnings of manga in Poland I managed to gather may be incomplete, I will start with the first official record of the event at which Japanese comics and animation were presented to the Poles under the names “manga” and “anime.” The story begins in the early 90s, with Robert “Mr. Root” Korzeniowski visiting a computer fair in London, where he stumbled upon the anime Akira. In the year 1994, at the Amiga computers’ fans convention in Warsaw, Mr. Root organized a section “Manga Room” with the purpose of familiarizing the Polish audiences with manga and anime. Soon, Korzeniowski introduced a column under the same title in a computer game magazine Secret Service. Simultaneously, Paweł ”Mr Jedi” Musiałkowski started the section “Mangazyn” in the computer magazine PC Shareware. In 1997, “Manga Room” developed into an independent magazine about manga and anime Animegaido (closed down in 1998), and Mr Jedi became an editor-in-chief of  Kawaii (1997-2005).

Although Polish channels had been already airing anime series (targeted mainly to children) like The Adventures of Maya the Bee, Yattaman, Princess Sarah, Battle Commander Daimos, or Captain Tsubasa, the first broadcast of the Sailor Moon series on public TV in 1994-1995 turned out to be a breakthrough for the popularity of manga and anime in Poland. Encouraged by Sailor Scouts’ success, J.P.Fantastica Publishing released Naoko Takeuchi’s Sailor Moon series in 1997, which constituted a significant step forward, given that till then, the only manga published in Polish was Riyoko Ikeda’s Ten no Hate Made; (Until the Borders of Sky – Poland’s Secret Story). As I have mentioned, the year 1997 also marked the launch of the first magazine devoted entirely to manga, anime, and Japanese culture—Kawaii. Apart from my personal experience as a fan and other fans’ accounts, in this paper I will draw heavily on the readers’ letters section of Kawaii in the attempt to give a brief outline of Polish manga fandom in the transitory period when fans still did not rely so strongly on the Internet to communicate and collect information.

Supernanny versus Pop Cosmopolitanism

In “Pop Cosmopolitanism: Mapping Cultural Flows in an Age of Media Convergence” (2006) Henry Jenkins refers to pop cosmopolitanism as “the ways that the transcultural flows of popular culture inspires new forms of global consciousness and cultural competency” (156). In the process, the texts of culture “are decontextualized and recontextualized at the sites of consumption,” which may result in “unpredictable and contradictory meanings” being ascribed to them (154). These mechanisms played a critical role for the perception of anime and manga shortly after they were introduced in Poland, as their medium itself was already connoted with particular meanings. Thus, many manga fans would be disgusted at the thought that Japanese animation for children or erotic hentai videos are called anime, just like, say, Mamoru Oshii’s masterpiece Ghost in the Shell. It becomes apparent from the letters published in Kawaii that for the majority of fans, manga and anime were primarily characterized by a deeply spiritual quality, while their entertaining aspect was seen as secondary or denied altogether, as being too vulgar.

On the other hand, the sarcastic term “Chinese cartoons” was typically used by non-fans to refer to anime in general. This confusion of medium and content, as well as the expectations about their fixed relationship (animation and comics are supposed to tell stories for children), constituted the source of constant humiliation for the fans (teenagers and grown-ups watching childish cartoons?), and aroused suspicion or even hostility toward manga and anime among non-fans.

In 2003, when manga market was in its first bloom, and it seemed that for a while nobody wanted to burn manga fans on stakes, one of Polish popular channels aired an episode of a journalistic show which stirred a controversy that came to history as “Bulma’s naked buttocks” case. In the program, a psychologist Dorota Zawadzka (nowadays known as “Supernanny”) relates how, to her shock and terror, she discovered “pedophile pornography” (Dragon Ball, Volume 1) in her teenage son’s comics collection. Apart from surreal special sound effects that accompanied numerous close-ups on the page where the heroine (Bulma) for a moment exposes herself in front of an old man (Keme Senin), the program featured the scene where children (approximately four years old) gathered to “read” the scandalous manga. While it is true that this episode of Dragon Ball may qualify as obscene, fans would not read it as pornography but as a comic device generally characteristic of Asian culture which, unlike Polish one, embraces more distanced and humorous approach to sexual innuendos. What is even more important, fans, as competent comics readers, would not offer such manga to a child, acting on the assumption a false assumption that all comic books are for children.

A large number of manga fans of the 90s connected their passion for manga and anime with the fascination for Japanese culture in general. Almost everyone dreamt about going to Japan and many of us knew more about Japanese art and literature than about Polish cultural heritage. This phenomenon was criticized in a letter from Halue, a half-Japanese, half-Polish fan living in Poland. The girl appealed to the readers that they should get to know and appreciate their own culture first, and only with such a basis may they take another step as Japanese culture’s aficionados (Kawaii 38:79). Another reader, who had been training karate for many years, warned other fans about the hardships of regular training, apparently to spare them disappointment in case they wanted to start training inspired only by their love for anime or Japanese culture (Kawaii 41:77). The same intention inclined Doppi-zoku to write an article about the Japanese Studies in Poland. The author confirmed that the professors in the Japanese Department were gravely prejudiced against manga fans and suggested that Kawaii readers should think twice before choosing Japanese as their major (Kawaii 36:83).

All these texts were written in good faith, however, they also reveal the background premise about the impracticality of fans’ knowledge and their inability to put the strategies they employed for hunting down the desired information to a better use. In this regard, manga fans’ pop cosmopolitan potential for enhancing their new cultural competences seems to be acknowledged only on the emotional level. Many fans wrote about how their identification with clever manga characters motivated them to be diligent at school. There are also numerous stories about fans who decided to learn a foreign language because of their love for anime series that was not available in Polish, or it was aired in Poland, but dubbed in a foreign language. This, however, leads to a question about the stability of such motivation—would they persevere in studying a foreign tongue after their favourite mangas had been finally translated into Polish?

Here, a broader social context comes into perspective. It is highly probable that if such fans decided to engage in fandom activities that involved, for instance, creating funsubs or scanlations, they would enter the network in which their knowledge would become currency and in order to upgrade their status in fans’ community or simply to share with others, they would continue to improve their skills. After all, perseverance is one of the most distinguished characteristics of a “true fan.”

True Fans, Otakus, and Obsession as a Beautiful Disease

In her MA dissertation Fans Practices as Symptoms of Society’s Changes in the Age of Web 2.0. (2012), Agata Sutkowska aptly notices that being a “true fan” is not supposed to be only about pleasure. This is evidenced in Kawaii readers’ reflections on how they define themselves as fans. According to these commentaries, “true fans” would not “abandon” their interest in particular anime even after its broadcast was terminated. Instead they would relentlessly pursue knowledge about new anime and mangas and devote most of their time to their hobby, more often than not sacrificing their social life and, as some claim, even sanity.

Sutkowska compares the construction of the “true fan’s” identity with the image of the “true Pole” cherished especially in the right wing environment. According to the author, they both rely on stereotypical behaviors, have no clear boundaries, and are predominantly ideological. Being called a “true fan” enhances one’s symbolic capital and saying that somebody is not a true fan becomes a form of offence (34). Finally, a “true fan” likes to display, rather than share, his/her knowledge and they often invest it with emotional and moral values. Thus such individuals are prone to confuse other fans’ flawed knowledge with flawed character in general. To give an example, an embittered fan Vanka relates that a “true fan” told her not to “disgrace manga” after he tricked her into calling a comics manga (Kawaii 33:79).

Although it is not clear from the fans’ letters how they discriminate between a “true fan” and an otaku, it seems that while the former term is used more often to refer to more active and conspicuous fans, “otaku” refers to these as well as to the socially withdrawn manga fanatics. The term “otaku” was popularized by Kawaii readers and at first bore a positive connotation, meaning a genuine fan, a nerd, or a geek. Nevertheless, after the publication of the article about Otaku no Video, which explained how this word is understood in the Japanese society, fans started to redefine it accordingly, as was reflected in many readers asking why at first being otaku was a source of pride and later—of shame (Kawaii 14: 12-15).

The discussion was heated up by many personal narratives appearing in the readers’ section—self-declared otakus defended their decision to escape from the “bleak reality” into the emotionally and intellectually fascinating world of beauty and the sublime. In response, apart from the messages expressing solidarity with these solitary dreamers, many letters were sent by the readers who wanted to help the “lost souls” to find balance between their hobby and social life, whereas some readers simply accused the “otakus” of cowardice and asked them to get a grip of their lives. In turn, the “otakus” were outraged by such a patronizing attitude—one of them suggested that being an otaku may be seen as a disease, but this would be a beautiful and harmless disease (Kawaii 28:80).

The metaphor for deep fascination with manga and anime as a disease had been relatively common among the readers. Some of them confessed that since they kept their hobby a secret, they felt as if they were hiding some embarrassing condition; others embraced their obsession with manga as a kind of mental illness. In the latter case, however, the fans often declared they did not want to be cured since their “disease” defined who they were.

The discourse adopted by the fans bears a strong resemblance to the one used in the nineteenth century to metaphorize tuberculosis or to talk about madness a century later, as demonstrated by Susan Sontag in “Illness as Metaphor” (1978). Firstly, the otakus’ “illness” was presented as not only mental but also spiritual condition that appeared “more soulful” (17) than depression or simply a social withdrawal syndrome. While for both obsessive manga fans and the Romantics “[s]ickness was a way of making people “interesting”” (30), by comparison, “[h]ealth [became] banal, even vulgar” (26). Many “true otakus” pointed out to the “normal” fans that the latter compromised their ideals with unsatisfactory life, which was also the argument for their otakus’ superiority over the “normals.” According to Sontag

Not TB but insanity is the current [20th century] vehicle of our secular myth of self-transcendence. The romantic view is that illness exacerbates consciousness. Once that illness was TB; now it is insanity that is thought to bring consciousness to a state of paroxysmic enlightenment. (36)

The fan that calls herself Tsubasa Ozora gained a lot of publicity in the readers corner by confessing about her extreme identification with the manga character, Tsubasa, not in terms of imitation, but rather with regard to incorporation or mysterious union—she claimed to love him so much that she imagined they were one. Although the fan stated clearly that at the same time she led a regular life and had caring (and real) friends, some readers speculated about her suicide (she never committed), and others felt alarmed by this case of self-transcendence, wondering whether or not she destroyed her own self in this process of extreme identification.

On the one hand, it is also true for manga fans that “the calamity of disease clears the way for insight into lifelong self-deceptions and failures of character” (Illness 42). Many “otakus” admitted to their extremely poor social skills and the fear of social situations that also contributed to their withdrawal into the realm of fantasy. On the other hand, as was pointed out to them by fellow fans, they often used their “disease” to draw attention to themselves and, at the same time, to excuse themselves from undertaking any action to improve their situation and ease their suffering. This takes us to another important factor shaping Polish manga fandom at the turn of the century—the martyrdom of fans.

Martyrdom of Manga Fans and Neon Genesis Evangelization

Equally common as the metaphorization of “otakuism” as a disease was the use of religious references to talk about the experience of being a Polish manga fan. As mentioned before, for many fans manga and anime already belonged to the sphere of sacrum (therefore, again, hentai could have been scorned by many of them as being profane). A fan A. d’A writes about “the holy war” he had been unwillingly taking part in as an RPG enthusiast and later on, a manga fan. He goes so far as to suggest that manga and anime are becoming perceived in the Polish society as a “religiously incorrect” hobby and tells other fans to prepare for possible future problems that this negative attention may entail (Kawaii 31:81).

His letter is one among numerous accounts given by (predominantly teenage) manga fans describing their suffering from intolerance experienced from family members, peers, teachers, or even shop assistants, because of their passion. There are several letters describing rather extreme reactions of fans’ parents who destroyed their children’s manga collections and attempted to force them to give up their “deviant” hobby. Other fans share their stories about being abandoned by peers who would sneer at their “childish” interests. There are also several stories about manga fans being discriminated at school for writing about or presenting on their “unworthy” hobby.Of course, these narratives are counterbalanced with plenty of inspirational stories told by the readers whose passion for Japanese pop culture had been encouraged by parents and teachers.

On the whole, however, manga and anime was undeniably receiving a lot of bad publicity in Poland in the late 90s and early 2000s. This incited a lively discussion about how to change the situation. Apart from organizing manga conventions, fans started congregating at “manga meetings” organized locally in many cities and smaller towns. Kawaii readers encouraged their fellows not to be ashamed of their hobby and stop hiding it. A lot of attention was devoted to the question about the ways in which manga and anime could be popularized among non-fans. Many agreed that the priority in preventing the numerous acts of discrimination should be educating non-fans about what manga and anime in fact are.

This was followed by what I would call “evangelization” initiative among Polish manga fans whose goal was to get through to their parents and peers by showing them how the fascination with exotic culture and Japanese art can be connected with their more “regular” interests. This also turned the fans’ attention to a broader cultural context of manga and their responsibility as representatives of the fandom. In this regard, many readers criticized the individuals who would damage the image of a manga fan by acting silly or odd (the appeal was particularly addressed the “otakus,” especially after “the Otaku Murderer” case had been covered by Polish media). The fans that succeeded in their mission would triumphantly describe their success, to which they would often refer as “converting” the non-fans.

In 2003 most of the editors in charge of Kawaii resigned from their function and started a new magazine about manga and anime—which, unfortunately, was closed down after a year. In her paper “Manga and Anime Fandom in Poland” (2006), Anna Czaplińska suggests that one of the reasons for Kawaii’s shutdown might have been that the magazine lost its previous function: the gradual infiltration of manga and anime into mainstream media, as the unrestrained access to the Internet gave the fans more independence in building social and information networks (21). It is not to say, however, that at present there are no print magazines about manga and anime. On the contrary, fans can buy magazines like Otaku, Kyaa, or Arigato in bigger bookstores and on the Internet. Nevertheless, the role of Kawaii for the development of Polish manga and anime fandom cannot be overemphasized. By offering its readers regularly featured sections devoted not only to anime and manga but also to Japanese music and traditions, drawing workshops, Japanese language lessons, and readers’ opinions and drawings, the magazine significantly aided the development of the fans’ pop-cosmopolitan awareness in rather isolationist environment.

Due to the spatial limitation of this paper, the transformations shaping Polish manga will become a subject of further research. For now, it must suffice to say that since Kawaii was closed down, Polish manga fandom has undergone a profound change: thriving on new possibilities offered by participatory culture, fans’ involvement resulted in organizing tens of manga conventions (and even a regular “Otaku camp”) featuring high quality cosplay performances, and copious production of fanfiction, fanarts, fanzines, dojinshi, AMVs, manga gadgets, etc.. From two leading publishers, Polish manga market flourished to host over seven manga publishings, including Studio JG which publishes, among others, works by Polish authors. Many fans have been actively participating in world-wide online communities devoted to fan productions; some of them now being internationally acclaimed manga artists. Although this seems to be the realization of the dreams dreamt by the fans of the 90s, however, most of us will never recover from the nostalgia for the times when manga and anime were still underground.

WORKS CITED

 

A.d’A. Letter. Kawaii. Vol. 31. 2001.81.

Czaplińska, Anna. “Fani mangi i anime w Polsce” (‘Manga and Anime Fandom in Poland’). Nicolaus Copernicus University in Toruń, 2006.

Doppi-zoku. “Japonistyka nienawidzi mangi” (‘Japanese Studies Hate Manga’). Kawaii. Vol. 36. 2002. 83.

Halue. Letter. Kawaii. Vol. 38. 2002. 79.

Jenkins, Henry. Fans Bloggers and Gamers: Exploring Participatory Culture. New York: New York University Press: 2006.

KnP. Letter. Kawaii. Vol. 41. 2003. 77.

Marcin “Tenchi” Świętoniewski. Letter. Kawaii. Vol. 28.2000. 79-80.

Nowakowski, Witold, et al. “Otaku no Video.” Kawaii. Vol.14. 1998. 12-15.

Sontag, Susan. “Illness as Metaphor.” New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1978.

Sutkowska, Agata. Fans Practices as Symptomps of Society’s Changes in the Age of Web 2.0. MA Thesis. University of Warsaw, 2012.

Vanka. Letter. Kawaii. Vol. 33. 2001.79.

 

Katarzyna Wasylak received a PhD in Literature from the University of Wrocław for a thesis Monistic Cosmologies in Modern Mythopeic Fantasy: Rejection of Transcendence in Favor of Immanence in Selected Works of Ursula K. Le Guin, Philip Pullman and Nancy Farmer . The main focus of her academic research is philosophy in fantasy literature for Children and Young Adults, manga, and anime. Alongside her academic work, Katarzyna Wasylak has worked as an illustrator and a graphic designer. She has also published several of her own graphic novels.

Participatory Poland (Part Five): You Forgot Poland: Exploratory Qualitative Study of Polish SF and Fantasy Fandom

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

 

You Forgot Poland: Exploratory Qualitative Study of Polish SF and Fantasy Fandom

 

By Justyna Janik, Joanna Kucharska, Tomasz Z. Majkowski, Joanna Płaszewska, Bartłomiej Schweiger, Piotr Sterczewski, and Piotr Gąsienica-Daniel, Jagiellonian University in Krakow

 

 

The analysis presented hereby comes from the recently concluded pilot part of the “Participatory Poland” project. We have carried out a computer-aided qualitative content analysis (applying commonly used guidelines for this kind of research, see Selected Bibliography)on the largest fantasy fandom portal in the country – polter.pl. The analysis included all content published on the site in September 2013. Poltergeist (widely known shortly as Polter) is the largest site of its type, but more importantly, it invites most participation and engagement and of all the fantasy-fandom-related platforms. It also courts the largest number of content created by the users.

Polter became the central hub of fan activity in the early 2000s, after the magazines which had fulfilled such role before – the literary Nowa Fantastyka and the roleplaying games magazine Magia i Miecz – either lost popularity and became more of niche press (NF) or closed down (MiM). Polter fulfills the double role of an informative as well as a social medium,  Some of the texts (mostly news on events and recent releases) are published by the editorial staff, but the portal also allows for user contributions, some of which are  featured on the main site. The blogs section is well developed and provokes lengthy discussions, offering reviews, roleplaying guides and tips, and articles on a variety of subjects connected with the fandom. Blog submissions are purely amateur and do not require the staff’s preliminary approval although they can be modified or deleted in case of violating the site’s guidelines. Polter has also been one of the first fandom platforms, together with Valkiria (which concentrates largely on games) and Fahrenheit (with a literature focus), and definitely one with the goal to cover all fandom matters.

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Caption: 30 years of progress? The first cover of Fantastyka magazine and its 30th anniversary rendition (Nowa Fantastyka magazine)

Historically, and to this day, the majority of SF and fantasy fans have concentrated their attention on literature and pen and paper roleplaying games. While genre films, TV series, computer games and other media usually of great interest to fans worldwide still appear in discussions and activities of Polish SF and fantasy fandom, they remain less popular.

Within the genres of tabletop roleplaying games and SF literature, Polish fandom differs from the majority of Western fandoms with its definitions of canon works. The limited access to and the small number of Western media available (mostly via unofficial means and xerox copying) to fans before the political transformation of 1989 has hugely influenced this state. For instance, the system considered as the classic of the Western roleplaying fandom, Dungeons and Dragons, was adopted in Poland with a significant delay and never reached the top popularity although nowadays it is also considered a classic. Instead, the prototype of all the games and still the major point of reference for most players, is the setting of Warhammer (in the 2000s followed by both editions of World of Darkness).

Similarly, when composing the list of the greatest SF and fantasy classics, a typical Polish fan would create a list different from their American or British counterparts. While the works of the authors considered worldwide as absolute classics (such as J. R. R. Tolkien, R. E. Howard, Ursula Le Guin, Frank Herbert, P. K. Dick) still underline the literary canon, they are accompanied by many works from Eastern European writers (such as the Strugatsky brothers or Kir Bulychov) and, maybe most importantly, Polish works which before ’89 tended to be heavily influenced by the need to write about the political situation under the guise of SF. This trend of science-fiction prose as a vessel for social, political and sometimes philosophical topics was largely established by Stanisław Lem and Janusz A. Zajdel, whose impact on later fiction is recognizable to this day.

 

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Caption: Kir Bulychov as a guest at a convention organised in a college, 1997. Photo: Szymon Sokół

 

Fantasy cons and fan gatherings have always been the liveblood of Polish fantasy and SF fandom. Unlike many Western conventions, Polish gatherings are not dominated by discussion panels from academics, aca-fen and media creators, but are instead filled with roleplaying sessions (sometimes announced but often spontaneously arranged) or lecture-like presentations often given by fans who do not study or lecture on the subjects professionally. Cons are usually organised by particular, city- or province-based fan organisations, and everyone who works at them does so voluntarily. Local fan organisations use conventions as a tool for promotion, and the quality of the events is seen as the reflection of the club’s rank and the strength of the local fandom. Such connections with a specific local community are often highlighted in cons’ logos that contain visual motifs associated with certain Polish cities.

Conventions are attended by authors and publishers, but the content producers in attendance are usually connected to the realms of books, comics and roleplaying games, with movie and television producers largely absent. It is worth noting that even the largest conventions (attended by above 10,000 fans) are all run by the fans themselves, without the involvement of any professional event planning companies. The authors in attendance are not compensated for their involvement. Commercial booths accompanying the events,  limited to small areas, are not considered a significant feature of a con. The majority of cons are held on  weekends, usually in rented classrooms of public schools, and not in conference centers or fairs venues. However, our analysis suggests that fans often formulate demands for the conventions to be organised in a more “professional” manner – this trend becomes noticeable in our material in the comments sections of the posts on a major event, Polcon, infamously nicknamed by the fans in social media as “Kolejkon” (“Queue-con”) because of its organizational issues. Some fans argue that because participants pay for the entry, a con should be considered and evaluated as a product. A commercial standard is being applied to an event run by unpaid volunteers, which marks a certain change of attitude considering the grassroots origins of Polish conventions.

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Caption:  Polish mermaids are the most beautiful! Local pride expressed in the promotional graphics of Warsaw-based Polcon convention (mermaid is the symbol on Warsaw’s coat of arms). By Sylwia ‘Saarl’ Smerdel

 

Furthermore, the most active fans are most appreciated by their colleagues and such participation and productivity are important criteria in fandom’s internal stratification. Professional book writers hold the biggest prestige among the community, followed by creators of other media (for instance game designers have a lower status than authors of literature) and active fans (where participation in events and local gatherings is valued higher than online-only activity). These distinctions are also reflected in convention programmes:  institutionally recognized contributors (such as book authors or academics) invited by the organisers have a status of “guests,” whereas those who volunteer to give presentations or run other events are called “programme creators” and have a lower status than “guests.”

Conventions become hosts to most important awards within fandom, starting with the Hugo-inspired literary award Zajdel (or: Nagroda Fandomu Polskiego im. Janusza Zajdla), through such honors as PMM (Puchar Mistrza Mistrzów – the Cup of the Masters’ Master), a competition for the title of the best Game Master, and Quentin,  atrophy given to the author of the best roleplaying scenario. These are not the only honors awarded within the fandom, but they are also best known and as such, most discussed and disputed.

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Caption: A statuette of Janusz Zajdel Polish Fandom Award, a Hugo-based literary prize. Photo: Szymon Sokół

 

These are just some of the subjects fervently discussed on Polter and became the subject of our analysis in this study. All of the items published in September were copied together with accompanying comments into a program aiding in content analysis. With its help, the posts were sorted according to the site’s division into news, reviews, articles, blog posts, etc. Next, they were coded with a codebook established earlier for the purpose of this research. Coding categories were modified during the course of research in order to make them more suited for the encountered data. The categories were devoted to the forms of communication between the users, especially to the internal links between comments and the references made to various cultural texts. Also, specific categories were established to examine the various criteria of validation used by the fans in relation to commented media or events, textual strategies of justifying their opinions, and discursive ways of forming fans’ identities (inclusion and exclusion of certain content and groups).

It is important to hold in mind the exploratory character of the analysis, the results of which are by no means finite or final, but rather outline the field of study and constitute the basis for the research questions we will be tackling. This initial analysis set out to discover the most interesting content and processes in the contemporary Polish fandom. The following stages of the project will include data from a number of other sites sharing a similar profile. Due to the significantly low number of fandom-devoted portals in Poland, we can include all of them in our analysis. We are also planning to extend our research to some of the most interesting topics arisen during the initial analysis, as well as to turn to researching the participants themselves, that is the fans.

During the researched month, close to five hundred items were posted to Polter. Within those, books get the most coverage among all the media, while?  news about recent releases and reviews form the largest group of content published by the editorial staff. However, our study showed that it is the content connected to games (mostly pen and paper RPGs, but also videogames) that generates most social engagement. Roleplaying games seem to be the center of attention of Polter’s community; fans eagerly comment not only on the news and reviews of player’s guides, add-ons etc., but also on users’ submissions, such as scenarios, reviews thereof and session reports. The extent of these participatory mechanisms can be well observed in the case of Quentin,  the annual contest for the best roleplaying scenario, established in 1999 and hosted by Polter since 2003. All submissions for the contest are published on the website. The scenarios are evaluated by an independent committee and the winning work is posted on Polter, but users’ activity related to the contest entries does not stop after the verdict is announced and many of the texts concerning Quentin are user-created.

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Caption: Quentin award for the author of the best role-playing scenario. Photo: Szymon Sokół

 

The case of Quentin-related engagement is also an example of another wider trend. Our study showed that most of the interactions within the Polter community, as well as the comments on the works, are positive. Polter users express appreciation more often than dissatisfaction, and the criticism of other users’ content is usually constructive. This leads us to an assumption that mutual support and quality of content published on Polter are important values for this community and that fan identity is created and maintained through positive rather than negative expression (we elaborate on matters of inclusion and exclusion later in the text). This observation somewhat contradicts the widespread stereotype of a malcontent fan who uses online media mostly to express dissatisfaction and engage in conflict; the stereotype also held by the fans themselves, who seem to perceive the community as largely negative.

Our study paid a significant attention to the strategies of developing fan identity, through interactions and tactics of inclusion and exclusion. A part of this identity is forged through reading and media consumption habits presented publicly. As noted before, the majority of news posted on the website were connected with book releases, despite the fact that the most heated discussions were related to game posts and blogs. While most fans participate in several areas of media consumption and fan activities, SF and fantasy novels are perceived as much more high-brow than gaming. A fandom portal such as Poltergeist, while catering to the needs of all kinds of fans, makes a claim to a professional status by showcasing book releases and publishing book reviews. Similarly, fans attempt to raise their fandom status by disclosing their reading habits; the more books read the better, and the quantity is just as important as the quality of the works.

While the status of ‘having read’ the classics is important to a fan’s social standing and the familiarity with well-known works is desired, fans also have a tendency of distancing themselves from everything and everyone that has ‘sold themselves out’ and became irreversibly commercialised and therefore tainted by the mainstream association, becoming somehow less connected to fandom. This tendency features both in the case of actual commercial properties that have acquired a greater renown and in the case of fandom participants who have forged their fan activities into a source of income. Such cases are often treated with distrust or derision.

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Caption: Growing popularity of steampunk and cosplay: Mad Artistians’ stand at Falkon 2013. Photo: Falkon 2013

 

Another topic connected with identities included in our research is the ways Polter users conceptualize and discursively create the boundaries of fandom and its subcommunities. While there is a widespread use of the general term “the fandom,” incorporating all fans and topics of SF & fantasy regardless of the division into particular media and subgenres (and the Polter website sections also support this generalizing attitude), the self-identification practices of fans are more nuanced. Several times in the source material we encountered opinions about specific interest groups within the fandom that perceive themselves as autonomous and hardly want to communicate with each other – this was said about fans of LARPs, manga & anime, videogames and comic books. Manga & anime fandom seems to be especially stereotyped and more often than not placed outside the boundaries of SF and fantasy community; mentions of it in the source material often provoke the commenters to talk about “fandoms” (in plural). A similar case of a fandom splintering can be seen in the case of the Western comics fandom, but while the comic books fan seem content with standing apart from ‘the fandom’ of SF and fantasy, manga and anime fans strive for inclusion and recognition, especially on the local level of conventions and events. Their attempts are sometimes met with resistance, such as exclusion of manga and anime subjects from the convention programmes by the organisers. It is worth noting that the manga and anime fandom is relatively younger and much more feminised than the SF and fantasy fandom, and has been introduced in Poland fairly recently in comparison with others (more on this topic in an upcoming part of the report, devoted specifically to the manga & anime fandom).

Our findings also point out that patriotism is a vital component of Polish fans’ identity. This phenomenon can be observed on several levels. The most apparent is that the fans are eager to include, or even ‘adopt’ works or authors who seem even marginally connected to Poland. While in general, works most often consumed and discussed come from abroad rather than from Poland (with the exception of cult writers such as Lem or Sapkowski), the national pride and patriotism seems to be awakened by mentions of Poland and Polish matters in foreign works. This tendency has been illustrated during the analysed period in the instance of the new novel (Forest Ghost) from Graham Masterton, who set his story in Poland. Masterton himself accentuates his Polish connections and his new novel had been published in Poland even before its debut in the UK. Another example of clear national pride is displayed when a Polish work enjoys success abroad (in recent years it has especially been the case with game developers, most notably the creators of The Witcher series) as fans consider themselves to be a part of that success.

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Caption:  Agents of F.I.E.L.D.? Promotional graphics of the expansion Conspirators for the Veto! collectible card game about the Polish noblemen from the 17th century. Spoof of The Avengers movie poster. By Igor Myszkiewicz and Maciej Zasowski

On a more general level, SF & fantasy fans seem to share and reproduce the vision of patriotism grounded in the Polish 19th-century Romanticism, with its focus on national history, the values of chivalry, fight for a just cause and an idealised view of love and femininity. This can be well-observed in the case of fans’ attitude to history. Historical narratives (also those incorporating SF & fantasy elements) are being evaluated with the use of ideologized notions of “scholarly validity” and “historical accuracy,” accompanied by a belief in the possibility of access to the truth about certain events and phenomena. Historical references are used to maintain the national pride (hence the popularity of novels set in the “Sarmatian” period of Polish history regarded as the highest point of national splendour), but also tend to be connected with practices of exclusion – for example, the presence of female warriors (or women in positions of strength in general) is disregarded as historically implausible.

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Caption: Practically Polish. Graham Masterton (on the right) socializing with Polish fans at a convention. Photo: Geekozaur

 

On the other hand, our study found some instances of views that are more critical to the mainstream Polish views on patriotism. The anticlericalism and pagan inspirations attempt to challenge the usual affirmative approach to Christianity and its cultural role. An informative discussion occurred in the comments on a Polish card game about the Polish military fighting with the Taliban in Afghanistan. Whereas the reviewer appreciated a Poland-related theme, there were also opinions criticizing the game for allowing players to choose the Taliban side (and fight against the Polish), and also for depicting colonial violence. The discussion thread shows the clash between the conflicting views on Polish patriotism: the same work can be viewed in terms of continuing the honorable tradition of fighting for freedom or criticised as promoting Polish participation in imperial oppression.

Another aspect of declared patriotism is connected to consumer choices. As stated before, the media discussed and referred to on Polter are predominantly Western, mostly originating from English-speaking countries. However, there is a very distinct declarative tendency to ’support the Polish market‘ (both discursively and financially). The market of Polish SF & fantasy products (especially RPG-related) is perceived as small and constantly endangered by financial hardships. It is worth noting that certain dissatisfaction with the quality of Polish works or editions/translations does not stop these slightly patronizing general appeals to support the local media and creators.

Within the identity-related categories in our study we also established one connected to direct and indirect statements about gender. Though it is by no means a dominant issue for Polter users, it is still possible to notice some general tendencies. In a few instances the site’s participants suggested and tried to diagnose some inherently and inescapably specific ways women engage in certain activities, such as playing pen & paper RPGs or writing books. Female physical attractiveness is commonly perceived as a valuable asset in various contexts, from evaluation of drawn fanarts through comments on female cosplayers on conventions. It is worth noting that we found very few statements about masculinity in the source material; generally, only women are objects of generalizing statements, which suggests that a male fan is recognized as a default member of the community and a female fan is a special phenomenon that requires examination. Historically, Polish SF and fantasy fandom has always been rather male-dominated, with a prevailing belief in the old chestnut that all gaming women are girlfriends of the game masters. However, in the middle of the 2000s, the numbers of female representation in the fandom surged significantly. The last few years brought on the attempts to form a female fan (and especially a female roleplayer) identity. These attempts in turn  sometimes meet with negativity from the more conservative fans trying to neutralise such emancipatory tendencies by generalizing statements along the lines of “fandom is not for women, fandom is for everyone.” At the same time, splinter fandoms of manga and anime or fanfiction writers tend to be much younger and female-dominated, and gender roles are often very different from the ones taken for granted by the majority of the SF and fantasy fans.

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Caption: ‘Mom, can I exterminate already?’ A young female Dalek at a convention. Photo: Szymon Sokół

 

To sum up, in our exploratory research of Polish science-fiction & fantasy fandom we found the following problems to be the most interesting and worth further examination (possibly with an inclusion of diachronic longitudinal methods and different media outlets):

1) Fans’ attitudes towards national categories and notions of Polish identity. Divergent tendencies were observed in that area: on one hand, most of the fans seem to share conservative, affirmative views on Polish history and identity, with a distinct tone of national pride; they seek and appreciate topics related to Poland in foreign works and declare interest in and care about Polish SF & fantasy media despite being aware of the flaws and limitations of this market. On the other hand, the study showed that fans refer mostly to works of Western origin in their texts, comments and practices, which suggests that there is a constant process of negotiation between joining global cultural trends and maintaining local specificity; also, some more revisionist and critical attitudes towards the dominant discourse of Polish national identity start to appear. Still, references to national categories are vital points in fan discussions, even if treated negatively.

2) Gender views remain on the conservative side, with a prevailing tendency to see the masculine as the default. However, in the recent years a rising trend of female fans and players attempting to define their own identity has appeared. Such attempts are often opposed to on the grounds that they represent ‘special interests’ and are not pertinent to the group as a whole. Some female fans differentiate themselves from the whole of fandom either by adopting a unique style (of playing, of writing, of attire) or by finding niche activities to make their own, i.e.  fanfiction or forms of expression relating to costuming (cosplay, steampunk, etc.), while others openly demand more diversity within the fandom’s mainstream. As the demographics of fandom changed significantly in the past few decades, we can expect the trend of female fans making themselves more visible and aiming for recognition to rise in the future.

3) There are increasing voices calling for a professional approach to previously grassroots initiatives of SF and fantasy conventions. Historically, the events were organised by volunteers and local organisations and were perceived as a communal effort, while nowadays some of the convention-goers point out that the cons should be treated in terms of a commercial product and therefore give the participants the right to demand a much more professional approach. At the same time, other tensions between the amateur and professional realms emerge, presenting contradicting views: the fans want Polish works to succeed locally and internationally, but are distrustful of anything they consider too commercial or mainstream, bringing forth the accusations of “selling out”.

4) Tensions appear also in the area of media consumption. While most fans are ascribing prestige and nobility to literature, especially the more high-brow and canon works, and are eager to boast about their reading history, they tend to engage more with the works of a perceived lesser status, such as pen and paper roleplaying games.

We believe that our exploratory study of Poltergeist community can lead to deeper diagnoses of the specificity  of participatory culture inside the SF & fantasy fandom in Poland and forms a strong starting point for further research.

 

Selected Bibliography

Cappella J.N. et al. (2009). “Coding Instructions: An Example.” In Krippendorff K., Bock M.A. (Eds.), The Content Analysis Reader (pp. 253-265).Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications.

 

Carvajal, D. (2002). “The Artisan’s Tools. Critical Issues When Teaching and Learning CAQDAS.” In Forum: Qualitative Social Research 3(2). doi: http://www.qualitative-research.net/fqs-texte/2-02/2-02carvajal-e.htm

 

Hak T., Bernts T. (2009). “Coder Training: Explicit Instructions and Implicit Socialization.” In Krippendorff K., Bock M.A. (Eds.), The Content Analysis Reader (pp. 220-233). Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications.

 

MacQeuun K. et al. (2009). “Codebook Development for Team – Based Qualitative Analysis.” In Krippendorff K., Bock M.A. (Eds.), The Content Analysis Reader (pp. 211-219). Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications.

 

Mayring P. (2000). “Qualitative content analysis.” In Forum: Qualitative Social Research 1(2). doi: http://www.qualitative-research.net/index.php/fqs/article/view/1089

 

About the Authors

Justyna Janik: MAs in Comparative Studies of Civilizations and Cultural Anthropology, PhD student in the Institute of Audiovisual Arts, interested in game studies and pop culture theory, especially fan studies;

 

Joanna Kucharska: MAs in English Literature and American Studies, PhD candidate at the Institute of Audiovisual Arts, researching audience participation and transmedia

 

Tomasz Z. Majkowski: Aca-fan, PhD in Literary Criticism, Assistant Professor at Department of Literary Anthropology and Cultural Studies at the Faculty of Polish Studies of Jagiellonian University, interested in pop culture theory, especially fantasy and sci-fi studies, game studies and historical interactions between pop culture and ideologies.

 

Joanna Płaszewska: Slavic philologist, librarianship and information science student, interested in fanfiction readership and new literacies.

 

Bartłomiej Schweiger: PhD student in Institute of Sociology on Jagiellonian University, interested in power-knowledge structures embedded in our culture, especially videogames.

 

Piotr Sterczewski: MA in Cultural Anthropology, PhD student in the Institute of Audiovisual Arts (Jagiellonian University), interested mostly in ideological aspects of videogames.

 

Piotr Gąsienica-Daniel: Sociologist and researcher at TNS Poland

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

 

Notes on comics fandom in Poland

Michał Jutkiewicz, Polish Department Jagiellonian University

Rafał Kołsut, Polish Department Jagiellonian University

 

  1. Emergence of comics fandom in the 1980s

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

2. Situation during the 90s and 2000s

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

plecykonia (1)

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

4. The community of comics fans nowadays

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Bibliography

Comics Grrrlz – comicsgrrrlz.pl

Esensja – esensja.pl

„Fantastyka” 1/1982 – 6 (93)/1990

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

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

Gildia Komiksu – komiks.gildia.pl

„Komiks” 1/1990 – 2 (32) / 1995

Komiks w Sieci. Antologia polskiego komiksu internetowego; Cracow 2004

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

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

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

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

Polish Female Comics – Double Portrait; Poznań 2012

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

Zeszyty Komiksowe – zeszyty komiksowe.org

 

 

 

 

About the Autors

 

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

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

[Illustration: Back of the Horse by Robert Sienicki]