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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Textual Poachers Turns Twenty!

This past week, I received in the mail my author’s copy of my book, Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture. This book, my first, is now twenty years old (meaning that it is old enough to drink and vote) and that means that I am old enough to… (well, never mind that part!) When I wrote this book as a first year assistant professor, I would never have anticipated the impact it would have and I certainly would not have imagined that Routledge would be willing to reissue it to mark the twentieth anniversary of its publication.

One of the challenges of producing this edition was the struggle to come up with the right approach to the cover design. To be honest, it was very hard for me to let go of the original cover, which was constructed around a wonderful piece of Star Trek fan art by Jean Kluge, which my wife, Cynthia, had bought for me as a gift at MediaWest and which had been close at hand throughout the process of drafting the book.

 

 

But, in the end, we were able to produce a cover I am really very proud of — in collaboration with a contemporary fan artist who has chosen to go here by the name of GLM:

Here’s part of the explanation for the cover design I wrote for the book:

My hopes for the new cover were that it should represent, as the original did, the work of a fan artist and it should employ an aesthetic that grows out of the fan community’s own modes of cultural production; that it should represent a transformative use of existing source material; and that it should suggest the dynamic nature of fandom, which has absorbed new content and embraced new forms of production since the original book was published….

This cover embodies the new aesthetic of photo-manipulation, which remains controversial among some fans but which has also represented a clear demonstration of the way that fans turn borrowed materials into resource for their own collective expression. While the original cover was based on a pre-existing fan work, this new cover was commissioned from and developed in conceptual collaboration with the artist. As with the original, we wanted to suggest the play with alternative universes, which is a staple of fan fiction. We chose four characters — Spock, Darth Vader, Buffy and Xena — who represented four key fantoms that span the past two decades, and we positioned them in an alternative reality fantasy that allowed us the chance to imagine interactions between them. Keep in mind that Jean Kluge’s original was an alternative universe version of Star Trek: The Next Generation read through the lens of Arthurian romance. These characters are meant to stand in for the hundreds of fictional figures who have inspired fan devotion and creativity since Textual Poachers first appeared.

The selection of these figures was a challenge: we needed characters that were likely to be recognized by non-fan readers but which also had a rich role in the history of fan culture, and the press was a little nervous about certain rights holders who had a reputation for being a bit litigious in going after infringers (so no Disney, no Harry Potter…). So this is what we came up with.

It has occurred to me that there is probably more than one fan story to be written to explain the configuration of characters and settings presented here. So, let me throw out my own fan challenge: I will happily send along one autographed copy of the new edition of Textual Poachers to any fan author who wants to write the story to accompany this picture (especially if you will let us publish the story through my blog.) Send it to me at hjenkins@usc.edu.

The book also includes a detailed artist’s statement in which GLM explains the process of photographic manipulation through which she generated the core image. The finish image, she tells us, involved 200 layers and 242MB of data.

For the reissue of the book, Suzanne Scott, a rising young fan scholar, did an extensive interview with me, in which she posed challenging questions about what has happened to fandom and fan studies over the past twenty years. Here’s a small excerpt from that exchange:

Like many first wave fan studies, Textual Poachers spoke back to dominant representations of fans as “brainless consumers”(10).  Fans have moved from the margins to the mainstream within convergence culture, and echoing this shift we’ve seen a proliferation of fan and geek characters within popular culture.  Many of these representations still trade in stereotypes, suggesting that fans “get a life” (e.g. The 40 Year Old Virgin, The Big Bang Theory), and the etymological ties between “fandom” and “fanaticism” continue to be reinforced by the popular press (e.g. coverage of Twilight fangirls), but there are notable exceptions.  Do you think the trend towards recasting fanboys as superheroes (Heroes, Kick-Ass) or action heroes (Chuck, Ready Player One) has dulled the dominant representation of fans as feminized through their ties to mass culture?  Has hegemonic masculinity shifted to tentatively incorporate the fanboy, as a character archetype as well as a consumer identity?

 

Suzanne, you’ve spent more time looking at this question than I have, but I was struck rereading Chapter One by how much these contemporary representations continue to play around with the same themes as earlier fan stereotypes rather than offering us an alternative conception of what it might mean to be a fan. So, in 40 Year Old Virgin, a key step into heterosexual normality comes when the protagonist sells his action figure collection; we can see Virgin as a prototype for a whole cycle of comedies which celebrate “arrested development” as a masculine virtue/priviledge, but the more manly the characters are, the more likely their interests are in sports or rock, rather than in science fiction and comics. Fan boys have been, by and large, better served by literary representations by authors such as Nick Hornby (1996), Michael Chabon (2000), Jonathem Letham (2004), or Junot Diaz (2008), than in media depictions.


The Big Bang Theory is a much more complex text than the “Get a Life” sketch for a number of reasons, but it starts with the same core cliches: Leonard has been given a love life, but despite a sort of romantic entanglement with Amy Farrah Fowler, Sheldon is still depicted as asexual; Howard still lives in his mother’s basement, even as he is engaged to be married; there are running jokes which queer the relations between Howard and Rajesh (not that there’s anything wrong with it); we have had episodes which hinged on the value of Leonard Nimoy’s autograph and the boy’s collecting impulses are sometimes depicted as bordering on the irrational. At the same time, though, we are encouraged to see the world from the fan characters’ perspectives, we value their friendship and intellectual mastery, and over multiple seasons, they have become more complex than the stereotypes upon which they were based. Most significantly, the show insures that it gets its geek references right, anticipated that the show is being watched by people who will know what “frak” and “grok” mean, who have opinions about the comics or video games the characters are buying, who might actually play “Rock, Paper, Scissors, Lizard, Spock,” and who will appreciate cameo appearances by Wil Wheaton, Brent Spiner, Katee Sackoff, and Summer Glau.


What’s striking, though, is that even though Big Bang has added female characters in recent seasons, the women remain largely outside the fannish circle: it’s almost a crisis anytime women venture into the comic shop; Bernadette and Amy are both female scientists, but they do not show much interest in science fiction. Big Bang shows some sympathy to fan boys, but doesn’t share the love with fan girls.


I have spent less time looking at Chuck, so I can’t really comment there,  but it seems to me that Kick-Ass and Super, among the new action films, still pathologize their fan characters (seeing them as acting out unfulfilled fantasies or turning personal frustrations into violent rage), even if they have become the protagonists rather than the antagonists (as in, say, King of Comedy or Unbreakable). I tend to like these newer representations better because they often address us as “fans” but we still lack alternative forms of fan identities in popular culture that might reflect several decades of academic research on fans and fandom.


The exception may be in nonfiction. More and more journalists are themselves fans and thus openly display fan expertise and engagement. Commercial blogs, such as io9, Blastr, and the Los Angeles Time’s Hero Complex, take fans seriously as a demographic, and San Diego Comic-Con gets cover stories in Entertainment Weekly, which often assume a fan rather than “mundane” reader. Documentaries like The People vs. George Lucas have taken the side of the fan over the producer (though here, again, with a strong gender bias; the history of female fan complaints about Star Wars get little to no attention). And, as you’ve suggested, more and more show runners and filmmakers have used their blogs, podcasts, and director’s commentary, to construct a “fan boy auteur” identity, to help authenticate their relationship with a more participatory audience (an option which has so far not been open to female showrunners) (Scott, 2012). This is where the mainstreaming of fan culture has taken place (and in turn, this process may make some of the more sympathetic elements in Big Bang, say, more accessible to a general audience.)


Big Bang Theory’s dual address seems to perfectly encapsulate the industry’s conflicted desire to acknowledge fans’ growing cultural influence, while still containing them through sitcom conventions.  I agree that the recent influx of fanboy characters reinforce old stereotypes more frequently than they challenge or complicate them, but as you note above the comparative scarcity of fangirl representations – Liz Lemon on 30 Rock aside – suggests that while the industry is beginning to take fanboys seriously as a demographic, fangirls (or women, generally) are still considered a surplus audience.  While I’m an avid reader of  the Los Angeles Time’s Hero Complex, it’s difficult not to notice the gendered language of their tagline, “for your inner fanboy.”

 

Some of this, I think, has to do with the particular role of San Diego Comic-Con as the primary point of intersection between Hollywood and the fan community (Jenkins, 2012a). Coming out of comics and science fiction fandom, rather than out of media fandom, Comic-Con has very much been shaped by male-centric fan traditions, norms, and assumptions, and until very recently, the attendees were overwhelmingly male. So, when Hollywood went to talk to the fans, or when the news media did its annual fandom story, they mostly encountered men, and this served a particular push right now within the media industry to try to hold onto the young male demographic, which is the “lost audience segment,” because they have been abandoning television for games and other digital media. So, even as fan studies has suggested the centrality of women to fan culture, the media industry clings to somewhat outmoded understandings of what kind of people are fans. Over the past few years, we’ve seen an increase of women coming to Comic-Con (partially in response to Twilight and True Blood, but really, across the board), so there may be some hope that the industry might develop a more diverse understanding of the fan audience.  Witness a largely sympathetic account of female “shippers” in Entertainment Weekly (Jensen, 2012) which included acknowledgement by industry insiders of their increasing significance in shaping the reception of especially procedural programs like Castle and Bones. Because of its location in San Diego, Comic-Con is more racially and ethnically diverse than most other fan gatherings. As a consequence, it is becoming a key site for minority fans to organize and call out the industry for its often stereotyped representations of people of color.


Another factor that may change this pattern has to do with the growing number of cult television shows produced by women — in many cases, they are produced by husband and wife teams, but there are also a number of female show runners who inherit series from male mentors (such as the relationship between Joss Whedon/Ron Moore and Jane Espensen). It says something positive about the so-called “fan boy auteurs” that so many of them have invested in helping women break into the industry. You can argue that the industry’s address to male fans reflect the male producer’s intuitive understanding of what fans want to see and thus diversifying who produces media can help diversify the kinds of media produced. Of course, it remains to be seen if these women will have the same freedom to proclaim their fan investments their male counterparts now take for granted or whether they are still under a lot of pressure to demonstrate their professionalism and are not “simply fan girls.”

And the book closes with a study guide by Louisa Ellen Stein, exploring what Textual Poachers might contribute in the contemporary classroom, providing questions for discussion, readings for further consideration, and other resources which might help educators in using this work more effectively with their students.

If I was delighted to be working with a next generation fan artist for the cover, I was also very proud to be working with two next generation Aca-fen to help me reflect on the book’s legacy. We all hope that the book’s re-release encourages you to revisit Textual Poachers or perhaps read it for the first time.

The whole process has left me nostalgic about the experience of creating Textual Poachers. At the time, I sent out copies of the manuscript to everyone quoted, and I still have a bulging file of letters I received in response from countless fan women. I know some of you are still reading this blog twenty years later, and I’d love to encourage you to post comments here, sharing your own reflections about what has happened to fandom over the past two decades since this book first appeared. I think our blog response software is working much better than it has sometimes done in the past, but if you have any problems posting your comments, send them to me at hjenkins@usc.edu

Over the Rainbow: John C. Tibbetts Opens Archive of Interviews

Over the past year or so, I’ve been enjoying an active correspondence with John C. Tibbetts, a long-standing film researcher, who recently put out a three volume collection of highlights from American Classic Screen, a publication which in its day represented an important bridge between the world of film buffs and cineastes, on the one hand, and film scholars on the other. For a period of time, academic film scholars seemed eager to burn some of these bridges, gaining academic respectability at the expense of cutting themselves off from fans and journalists who shared their passions for film. Tibbetts is one of the film scholars who has kept these bridges very much in tact, working through the years as a practicing journalist, as well as teaching at the University of Kansas. He’s recently opened a remarkable website which showcases several decades worth of interviews with some of the top creative talents of the era, one which as he explains below is fearless in bridging high and low and cutting across a range of different media. Whatever your interests, there is sure to be material here which will be invaluable to you.

“OVER THE RAINBOW”: A STATEMENT BY JOHN C. TIBBETTS, UNIVERSITY OF KANSAS

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I want to thank Henry Jenkins for this opportunity to welcome you to my new website, “Over the Rainbow,” administered through the University of Kansas. It contains hundreds of my video and audio interviews spanning 35 years with pop and classical figures in the arts and humanities. The address is: kuscholarworks.ku.edu/dspace/handle/1808/6581. Now in progress, and accessible to scholars, fans, and enthusiasts, “Over the Rainbow” has grown to more than sixty video interviews and soon will include hundreds more video and audio interviews. Eventually, they will be accompanied by brief annotations and illustrations to alert the viewer/reader to their contents.

How did I gain access to these interviews (I prefer to call them “conversations”)? Opportunities for contacts were numerous. Before gaining my tenure as an associate professor in Film and Media Studies at the University of Kansas in 1998, I worked as a full-time radio and television broadcaster and free-lance journalist for CBS television, the Christian Science Monitor radio network and newspaper, Voice of America, National Public Radio, and several classical music radio stations. At the same time I edited the National Film Society’s house magazine, American Classic Screen.

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A NOTE ABOUT THE INTERVIEWS

These conversations encompass the worlds of “classical” and “pop” culture, with artists and performers “high” and “low,” from the scholar’s studio to “drive-by” encounters on the road–at backstage rehearsals, in private homes, movie premieres, music festivals, academic conferences, science fiction/horror cons, etc. As you will see, it could be argued that I have shown little discrimination in these subjects, be they “high” and “low,” or somewhere in between. So be it. That’s the world we live in; the media borders are porous. As Henry Jenkins has declared, “Today we are trying. . . to build bridges, to open larger conversations, and to join forces with fans and industry alike as we explore the new directions being taken within media culture.”

Thus–to cite a few examples of these “bridges,”–you will find here conversations about music with blues man “Screamin'” Jay Hawkins” in a Kansas City bar and with opera star Luciano Pavarotti in the back of a luxury limousine. There are talks about gothic horror with popular novelists Stephen King and Robert (Psycho) Bloch; and with academics Professors Richard (The Age of Wonder) Holmes and Harold Schechter (The Bosom Serpent). Composer Jerry Goldsmith talks about composing for Star Trek, and “classical composer” Virgil Thomson remembers composing for Orson Welles and Robert Flaherty. Jazz pianist Ahmad Jamal and classical violinist Nigel Kennedy demonstrate techniques of improvisation. Comic book artist Bob Kane talks about creating Batman, and award-winning children’s book illustrator Chris Van Allsburg remembers writing The Polar Express and Jumanji. Movie soundtrack composer Ry Cooder and Professor Charles Hamm trace American blues traditions to 19th-century African-American roots. Hollywood mainstream directors James Cameron and Tim Burton talk about Aliens and Batman, and international filmmakers Bernardo Bertolucci and Peter Weir discuss their work in the Italian and Australian “New Waves.”

While on the road, like a modern-day flaneur, I’ve always kept my microphones and cameras at the ready. I found Ray Bradbury at Disney’s WED studios while working on EPCOT’s “Spaceship Earth”; Robert Altman at Kansas City’s fabled 18th and Vine locations while shooting Kansas City; concert pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy backstage at a Duesseldorf concert hall after a recital; historian Kevin Brownlow in the basement of his London Photoplay offices while finishing his documentary, The Tramp and the Dictator; Chevy Chase at a barbecue on the rim of the Grand Canyon after finishing National Lampoon Vacation; Jeremy Brett backstage in a West End theater before a performance of The Mystery of Sherlock Holmes; Arthur Conan Doyle’s daughter, Dame Jean Bromet, in her London flat dispensing tea and cakes while recalling her father’s forays into Spiritualism. George Burns in a Las Vegas casino while talking about Oh, God!; and slugger Bo Jackson in the Kansas City Royals dugout before a ballgame.

Inevitably, there are those deliciously unexpected incidents that flavor many of these conversations. Tape recorder in hand, I follow Maurice Sendak backstage while he paints scenery for a performance of the opera version of Where the Wild Things Are. I accompany Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder to the Smithsonian Institute, where they gaze in rapt amazement at the installation of the “Fiftieth Anniversary of Superman” display. Venerable concert pianist Charles Rosen interrupts our talk with a sudden discourse on Hollywood “B” movies. I clamber aboard the Memphis Belle B-17 bomber (now housed at Mud Island, near Memphis) with members of the original crew during on-site conversations about their participation in William Wyler’s titular 1943 documentary classic. I watch while Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. illustrates his swashbuckling memories of working with Max Ophuls on The Exile by brandishing a sword he kept in his apartment’s umbrella stand. I listened while an ageing Adriana Casellotti (the voice of Disney’s Snow White) punctuates her memories of the film with shrill reprises of “Someday My Prince Will Come.” While talking about Back to the Beach, Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon suddenly launch into their “Beach Party” theme song. A stark naked Tony Bennett changes costumes during a photo shoot in Los Angeles. Kermit the Frog likewise appears nude (courtesy of Jim Henson’s open hand) when he interrupts Henson’s remarks about Sesame Street. Instead of closing our conversation about The Color Purple with the traditional handshake, Steven Spielberg extends his hands for a quick game “patty-cake. Look closely, and you’ll see Debra Winger punctuating her remarks by munching on a potted plant. Brian Dennehy responds to my invitation to offer career advice to his young co-star, Tyrone Power, Jr., in Cocoon 2 with these immortal words: “Use a little less lip gloss, kid!” Avant-garde composer John Cage finds sudden inspiration for a discourse on “found music” when an ice cream truck tinkles out its melodies below our window. And my tape recorder is rolling while Clarence “Ducky” Nash (the voice of Donald Duck) breaks up a restaurant crowd with one of Donald’s squawking tantrums.

The old adage that the bigger they are the nicer they are certainly holds true in my experience. Tops on my list of Good Guys are directors Ron Howard and Richard Donner; actors Michael Caine, Meryl Streep, Morgan Freeman, Danny DeVito, Michael Douglas, Sigourney Weaver, Jeff Bridges, and DeForest Kelly (“Bones” on Star Trek); academics Jacques Barzun and Susan Sontag; and ragtime composer Max Morath and opera composer William Bolcom. In particular, I’ll never forget my many interviews with Arnold Schwarzenegger. Long ago, during his Conan the Barbarian days, Arnold’s consummate professionalism and his love of publicity already marked him as a born politician. The losers. . . well, discretion bids me hold my tongue, but can you spell T-0-M-M-Y L-E-E J-O-N-E-S?

A NOTE ON MY AUTOGRAPHED PORTRAITS

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Soon to accompany the interviews on the “Over the Rainbow” web site are hundreds of my sketches and paintings of the interview subjects. This hobby–or whatever it is–began long ago in 1966 when author Ray Bradbury inscribed my portrait of him with greetings from the characters in his stories. Not only did that launch a friendship I cherish to this day (Ray is in his late 80s now), but I was inspired to capture more likenesses and inscriptions. They now number more than 300 images.

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My portraits have had their advantages during my interviews. Sometimes they triggered unexpected conversations with the subjects. Gene Hackman showed me some of the sketches he makes between takes on the movie set, and Julie Andrews and Whoopi Goldberg confessed what they really want to do is write children’s books. Maybe strangest of all, Broadway superstar Mary Martin told me that she paints portraits too! But not the conventional views of faces; no, she’s talking about drawing the backs of their heads. “You see,” she explained, “when I was on stage during the run of The Sound of Music, I got to know the Von Trapp kids by the backs of their heads during the “do-re-mi” song. So I gave them each a drawing of the backs of their heads. And since then, I’ve given all my friends portraits of the backs of their heads. It’s become my trademark! I also blush to admit that in swaps for my art work, fantasy illustrator Joseph Mugnaini doodled fantastic designs on my Hollywood hotel stationery, Bob (“Batman”) Kane tossed off a drawing of the Dynamic Duo in the bar of the Sheraton-Universal Hotel, and Chuck Jones dashed off a Daffy Duck/ “Scarlet Pumpernickle” drawing in his Hollywood office.

I welcome all of you to visit my web site at the University of Kansas. You may find a few insights and provocations amidst some of the laughs and tom-foolery.

John C. Tibbetts (tibbetts@ku.edu)

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John C. Tibbetts is an Associate Professor in the Department of Theatre and Film at the University of Kansas, where he teaches courses in film history, media studies, and theory and aesthetics. His most recent books are Composers in the Movies: Studies in Musical Biography (2005, Yale University Press), Schumann: A Chorus of Voices (2010, Amadeus Press), and the three-volume American Classic Screen (Scarecrow Press, 2010). Forthcoming is Voices of Wonder: Conversations on Classic Fantasy, Science Fiction, and Horror.

What Constitutes an Open-Book Exam in the Digital Age?

Several weeks ago, I shared here the syllabus for the undergraduate class I am teaching this semester at USC. As I noted, it is my first time doing a lecture hall class in some years and my first undergraduate class at USC, so it has been a learning process for all involved. I wanted to share with you a pedagogical challenge I’ve faced this term in part as an illustration of the kinds of transition higher education is undergoing as we try to absorb new media technologies and practices into our teaching.

It starts with the decisions we made about the course readings. We opted to put the scanned essays onto Blackboard, the classroom management tool which USC urges us to use, rather than having them printed out at a local copy shop. My hope was to save the students money and to also save trees by having as close to a paperless class as possible.

Then, I made the announcement that the exams in the class would be open book, open note and that I was planning to distribute a list of potential questions in advance from which I would draw in constructing the exam, a practice I have used for more than 20 years without any great confusion. I’ve found that this approach lowers stress for students by allowing them to feel more in control as they are preparing for and taking the exam. In practice, some fraction of the class works really hard, prepares for the exam by writing out their answers in advance, and copies them into the blue book. Another fraction studies their notes, comes in and improvises on the exam, or develops an outline in advance that they write from. And some fraction, for their own reasons, pays no attention to the advanced questions, doesn’t study, and does really badly on the exam. The kicker is often the identification questions, which would be simple to answer by anyone with a textbook open in front of them, but nevertheless often end up unanswered or answered wrongly. The result is a grade distribution curve not very different from what I would have if I gave a closed book, closed notes exam — but as I said, it lowers stress.

No sooner did I announce this policy than I got a question I’ve never been asked before. A student wondered whether open book, open note, meant open laptop. I needed time to reflect on this and said I would answer in the next class period. Actually, it took me a few to get back to them with a response. Given this was a class on technology and culture, I decided to use this as a teachable moment.

So, I started by breaking down the computer into two elements. First, there is the computer as a stand alone word processing machine. I certainly would have had no great objections to students using the computer to write their answers or even to access their materials. Indeed, as someone with painfully bad penmanship, I had been the first in my graduate program to take my quals on a computer the department provided. They made sure to give me a clean disc as I entered the room and I was allowed to take nothing else with me into the test.

But this was before the era of networked computing, which fundamentally changed the character of what a computer is. So, allowing students to use a laptop during an exam suddenly would allow students to access any information anywhere on the web and more significantly would allow students to trade information with each other throughout the test in ways which would be extremely difficult to monitor.

As I thought about it, the challenges of designing a meaningful test under those circumstances intrigued me. What would it mean to create an exam which could be taken not by individual students but by networked groups of students — either the class as a whole or a specifically designated study group? Could we enfold ideas of collective intelligence into the design of tests? Could we create challenges which demonstrated their mastery of the material through the search strategies they deployed and the knowledge they produced together? In theory, such an exam holds promise as more and more jobs require the capacity to pool knowledge and collaborate with a team of others to solve complex problems, and learning how to mobilize expertise under these conditions should be a key goal of our educational process.

But, how would we deal with such an exam in the context of our current grading systems? After all, we still assume that grades measure individual performance and so if we gave group grades, that might prove unsatisfactory to everyone involved. Would students raised in a culture where grades based on individual performance know how to act fairly in a culture where grades were based on group performance?

After all, we know that on group projects, bright students are often treated unfairly, exploited by their classmates, who fail to do their fair share of the work, and who may, in fact, not be capable of contributing at the same level? Under such system, teachers have had to devise systems to measure individual contributions to the group, thus going back to personalized rather than collective grading? What would be involved in terms of time and technology in monitoring what each student contributed to the group’s collective performance on the exam?

And of course, all of this assumes that all of my students do have laptops or can borrow laptops, a more or less safe assumption given the relatively affluent population of USC, but hardly the case at many other colleges and universities around the country. How could you give one group of students such an intense advantage on the exam? Would we then have to issue laptops the way we now issue blue books?

As I started to contemplate these issues, I started to choke. As much as I wanted to be the cool, open-minded teacher, the model pedagogue for the digital age, there was no way I was going to be able to work through all of the implications of this radical shift in classroom practice in time to apply it this semester. A real answer to this question may not be possible in our current educational system, though it is a kind of question which we are going to be asked more and more. So, I spelled all of this out to my students, and challenged them to start thinking through the issues.

But, then came the turn of the knife. If they could not use their laptops, and the course texts had navigated to the web, then in what sense was this going to be an open book test? They could no longer access the course materials without printing them off, which would undo everything we saved by making them digital in the first place. The answer of course is that with the questions in advance, they could print out notes or print out the essays they needed to address the questions. They wouldn’t have to print out everything, but they would no longer be working in a paperless environment.

So, we went back to the drawing board one last time, and asked the tech people if it would be possible to shut down the wireless in the room for the duration of the exams. They were not able/willing to do this, so that’s where things stand as of the moment. Neither the students nor I are fully satisfied with this resolution, but both the pedagogical and technological structures of the modern university would seem to block any path out of this challenge that I have come up with.

I can’t be the only faculty member on the planet facing these challenges, so I am posting this to see how other educators are dealing with these transitions. I can see the world we are surely evolving towards, but I don’t know how to get there on my own.

So, let’s use our laptops to work through this problem together. Oh, wait….

While we are on the subject of Digital Media and Learning, I wanted to give people a head’s up for a great new documentary, New Learners of the 21st Century, which will be airing on PBS stations across the United States this coming Sunday, Feb. 13. Some of you will recall how one-sided and negative I found the Digital Nation documentary which aired last year, despite having talked to many key researchers and collected some compelling material for their webpage.

New Learners of the 21st Century offers the flip side of that documentary, taking us into innovative school and after school programs which are making creative use of new media platforms and practices for pedagogy. You can get a taste for what to expect from this opening segment which they have posted to PBS Video, but it is really, in this case, only the beginning.

By the second segment on Quest to Learn, the New York charter school which uses game design to teach, you can see the difference in the ways the two documentaries approach their topics. In Digital Nation, the Quest to Learn segment is almost incomprehensible: we see lots of activities involving technology but we have no idea what the kids are doing or why, and as a result, it feels like technology for technology’s sake. Here, we learn about their pedagogical approach; we see processes unfold; we hear about when they use technology and when they ask the kids to put it aside. The focus is less on the use of computers in the classroom, an old topic after all and as my above discussion suggests, one we are still struggling with, and more on the use of new media literacies in education.

The same holds true for the film’s treatment of a range of other pedagogical sites, including great stuff on work being done by the Smithsonian Institute and by the YouMedia Center at the Chicago Public Library, both important innovators in this space.

Because the topic is more narrowly focused, and because the goal is to explain and not simply stir up controversy, this film does do justice to the complex research which the MacArthur Digital Media and Learning program has funded in this area. I have been honored to be part of this initiative from the start, so my recommendation is scarcely unbiased here. But if like me, you’ve been burnt several times already by PBS’s treatment of youth and digital media, I want to let you know that this one will be more rewarding.

My Wild and Wonderful Comic-Con Experiences

The first thing about San Diego Comic-Con which hits you (sometimes literally) is the throng of attendees. A decade ago, the con attracted 45,000 people. This year, it attracted something like 125,000 fans. Most of the growth has been since the dawn of the 21st century, with the population expanding at something like 20,000 new guests each year. It’s hard to think what other kind of event attracts such a large number of people and holds them together over a four day period. At any given moment, about a third of them is probably in the dealer’s room and another quarter is spread across the two main halls — Hall H and Hall 20 — which is where the most star studded events occur. For those who want to attend Hall H events, it is not unusual for people to start lining up in the wee hours of the morning. We got there at 6:30 am for a 10 A.M. session on Doctor Who, for example. And the lines will wrap for several city blocks. In the midst of this chaos, though, the crowds are surprisingly well behaved. Every few feet there will be someone in a costume striking poses and photographers taking pictures and the crowd simply swerves around them so as not to disrupt the picture taking. A friend joked though that if you pause too long in this madness, a line will start to form behind you with people not quite sure what they are waiting for. The costumes by the way lead to some interesting rumors: Peter Jackson was rumored to have dressed up in a storm trooper costume so that he can navigate the floor of the dealer’s room without being mobbed. My wife suggested that if Johnny Depp wanted to do the same, his best strategy would be to dress as Jack Sparrow, given the large number of great Jack Sparrow imitators wandering through the masses. At the end of the day, you will feel overwhelmed from the sheer intensity of trying to navigate around all of those people all day long.

There are basically two strategies for dealing with the crowds at Comic-Con:

a)camp out all morning, get into Hall H or 20, and stay there as long as you can. Most of the high profile events are in those rooms and people will camp out through panels they have no interest in to be able to stitch together those events which are most important to them. This can be an advantage to smaller productions which get sandwiched between the core events. A film like Kick Ass or District 8 may gain much greater visibility because it grabs the interest of people who otherwise would not be motivated to attend. It can create enormous frustration, though, as when the Twilight fans arrived early in the day, took over the auditorium, and blocked others from attending panels they wanted to see (especially the sessions with Tim Burton and, as it turned out, Johnny Depp), when their session wasn’t until much later in the day. Twilight fans, in particular, have a reputation for very focused interests, as opposed to the broad generic interests which might draw science fiction or comic fans to the event. (Of course, the conflict with the Twilight fans has as much to do with generational and to some degree, gender differences as anything else). My son and I ended up sitting through a really tedious session on the current state of the Star Wars franchise in order to be able to see James Cameron and Peter Jackson. It says something about how much Star Wars has fallen from grace that even so, that panel was only about a third full. It also says something about the limited knowledge of many reporters sent to Comic-Con that a USA Today reporter tried to make the disputes between old school and newer Star Wars fans a major story coming out of the event.

b) Attend smaller scale panels and avoid the main events as much as possible. Ironically, you can almost always get good seats on the comics-related panels at Comic-Con, given what a high percentage of the newer attendees come because of the media circus Comic-Con has become. Last year, I spent most of my time in Hall H or 20 and left disappointed that I had missed a chance to see some of my favorite genre writers and comics creators. This year, I tended to reverse the strategy, though I did manage to see, among other things, Sigourney Weaver and other “Wonder Women,” The Cameron-Jackson exchange, and the Doctor Who, The Prisoner and Lost sessions. Because of my choices this year, I have a chance to share with you some of the stories the mainstream media didn’t cover, assuming that you’ve read a lot already about the 20 minutes of footage from Avatar that Cameron showed. I wasn’t able to get into that session, so I don’t know anything you haven’t already read.

Sneak Peaks

Warner Brothers offered sneak previews of three of its new television series: Human Target, V, and The Vampire Diaries. We arrived a few minutes into Human Target and missed the set up. All three of them suffer from some of the classic problems of pilots and have not yet achieved their full potentials. I will give Human Target and V second looks. Vampire Diaries, not a chance!

Human Target, based on long-running DC comics series, deals with a body guard who puts himself in harm’s way to protect his clients and the support network he’s built around him. The lead, Mark Valley, is engaging and good looking but a little flat, especially when compared to much more colorful performances by Chi McBride playing more or less the same cranky private eye character he did so well on Pushing Daisies and Jackie Earle Haley as a character with a dubious past who knows how to get the information needed just in time by hook or by crook. The pilot dealt with a murder attempt on board a high speed train connecting LA and San Francisco. It delivered the goods with some really spectacular action sequences. Personally, I still prefer Leverage which hits many of the same genre buttons. I fear that I may not have enough room on my Tivo for both.

V is of course the remake of the 1980s alien invassion series. Even a quick glance suggests that the producers have framed it as a neoconservative critique of the Obama era: with the Visitors making hopeful promises starting with a reform of the health care system, offering charismatic spokespeople who seem to be able to play upon the idealism of the young and the ambitions of the mainstream media. Elizabeth Mitchell (Juliet on Lost) plays a single mom, a federal investigator, who by the close of the first episode, is finding himself immersed in an underground resistance movement which promises to uncover and publicize the hidden truths of the alien conspiracy. This one was the strongest of the three and will certainly demand a second look, though I wasn’t totally hooked after the first episode.

The Vampire Diaries sucked — and not just in the ways you expect or want a vampire series to suck. Producer Kevin Williamson has been telling the press that Vampire Diaries is not Twilight the television series and after watching the pilot episode, which deals with a high school girl who seems on the path to falling in love with the new kid in the neighborhood who happens to be a vampire, I understand why. True enough, Twilight is the most successful of a broader range of “my boyfriend is a vampire” stories. You can love or hate Twilight but it does speak with its own voice. Vampire Diaries is what happens when you put Twilight, Gossip Girl, TruBlood, and Dawson’s Creek into a blender. On a first viewing, I had trouble finding anything there that had not been done before and much better.

A personal highlight of the con for me was the session of The Middleman, which I wrote enthusiastically about here after hearing the pilot episode last summer, and remained totally hooked into till the bitter end. The Middleman came and went on ABC Family without getting any real attention from the mainstream media so odds are you’ve never heard of it. Picture something with the playful campy tone of the old Batman series, coupled with the chemistry of the old Avengers series, and the imaginative plots of the Men in Black movies. For me, all of the pieces worked; the cast was great and the dialogue was some of the best I’ve seen on television in the past few years with the possible exception of Pushing Daisies. If you haven’t seen it, you must get the DVD boxed set which came out this month. Like many short lived series, The Middleman left many unresolved plot points in its wake, so it was wonderful news that the cast of the series would be reuniting at Comic-Con for a live table read of the script of a never produced final episode which promised to answer all of the remaining mysteries. (The same script has also been adopted into a graphic novel). I can’t tell you how much fun it was to see the entire cast, in person, performing the script. Each cast member got wild applause on first entrance. Given the tongue-twister style dialogue, there were bursts of applause when an actor managed to pull off a particular convoluted section of the script. It meant so much that the producers, writers, and cast were willing to go this far in creating a sense of closure on the series — as disappointed as we all were to see it come and go so quickly.

In terms of advanced footage, the best stuff I saw were some segments from the remake of The Prisoner, scheduled to run later this fall on American Movie Classics. I’ve long loved the original British series; the new producers are putting their own distinctive spin of that series’s themes and concepts. A highlight will be the recurring role of 2 which will be played by Ian McLelland who chews scenery here with the same enthusiasm as he has done in the Lord of the Rings and X-Men movies. The new series is set in the middle of the African dessert rather than in a Welsh resort town but there are still giant white balls that chase down people who try to escape. This one will be high on my viewing schedule come fall.

Yes, They Still Talk About Comics

I was able to attend sessions focusing on three of my very favorite comics creators, Mike Allred, Seth, and Bryan Talbot.

Allred, often working in collaboration with his wife, Laura Allred, has produced some really wild romps through popular culture over the past several decades. He is best known for his work on MadMan, though I have also very much enjoyed his contributions to X-Force and X-Static (where Marvel’s X-Man franchise parodies itself) and The Atomics. Allred’s current run on Madman has been especially open to formal experimentation with one issue drawn in a range of styles as a series of visual shout outs to key influences on his work, constituting a mini-history of the comic arts, and another was designed so that the entire issue can be read as one continuous panel. The closest comparisons to the tone of his work might be Zot! or Concrete, that is, superhero comics with a strong sense of characterization and with an eye towards critiquing aspects of the culture around them.

Seth, by contrast, is drawn towards an entirely different set of cultural influences — more inspired by old New Yorker comics than by the superhero tradition. He’s a Canadian based indie comics creator, whose works speak to our shared obsession with residual media. It’s A Good Life if You Never Weaken is a semi-autobiographical piece about his search for a long-forgotten cartoonist. Wimbledon Green is a larger than life story about the world’s greatest comic collector (think Richie Rich if Richie Rich collected comics rather than cash). Clyde’s Fans, still a work in progress, and his most recent graphic novel, George Sprott, are character studies of old men reflecting back on the past — in the first case, the protagonist, among other things, collects postcards, while in the second Sprott was an adventurer, filmmaker, lecturer, and television host. There’s so much to love about Seth’s work — a very humane and caring tone, a great attention to detail (especially the artifacts of our cultural past), solid characters, and a visual style which is at once retro and surprisingly fresh. Seth’s public persona captures so much of what I love about his work: he is a very quirky guy who dresses in a timeless though vaguely retro style and speaks in a low key voice that fits his work perfectly. He read a series of short autobiographical bits which spoke to key influences on his work, how he thinks about stories and images, and what he did and did not learn in art school, all of which honestly helped me to understand his work more fully.

Bryan Talbot is a British cartoonist who has been credited with producing some of the first Steampunk comics in the English language, The Adventures of Luther Arkwright. Many of his works draw inspiration for late 19th and early 20th century British children’s literature. The Tale of One Bad Rat includes long ruminations on Peter Rabbit and other Beautrix Potter characters. His more recent Alice in Sunderland is a long, rambling look at the creation of Alice in Wonderland which manages to convey large chunks of British regional history; the visual look of Alice is complex, scrapbook like, created through the juxtaposition of drawings and photographs, and is a powerful illustration of how graphic storytelling can be used for the purposes of cultural criticism and literary history. Here, he was speaking on the anthropromorphic tradition in British comics — basically funny animal strips in the newspaper and magazines — and how they have inspired his latest creation, Grandville, which is scheduled for release later this fall.

I also attended a lively session on contemporary art direction hosted by John Muto (Home Alone, Terminator 2 3D), who I have gotten to know through our mutual involvement with the 5D conference, and another session focusing on the life and work of Harvey Kurtzman, best known for his contributions to Mad, his war comics for E.C., and his Little Annie Fanny series for Playboy.

Henry Takes the Stage

This was the first year that I was speaking at Comic-Con. I was invited to join two panels, the first centering around the launch of the Institute for Comic Studies, and the second focusing on the current state of Harry Potter fandom. The Institute for Comic Studies is headed by Peter Coogan, who is the author of Superhero: Secret Origin of a Genre. I have agreed to be on the board of advisors for the organization which is designed to provide a central clearing house for initiatives supporting the teaching and research of comics, primarily on the college level. As someone who is doing more and more writing at comics myself, it is a thrill to see Comics Studies really start to take off as an academic field, albeit one which straddles a range of different disciplines and interests. Panels which the Institute organized at Comic-Con ranged from discussion of the forgotten erotic comics of Superman’s co-creater Jerry Schuster to discussions of the mental health of the Joker to considerations of whether it would be possible for any mortal human to acquire the skills and tools that Batman displays in the comics. Some of the work is still very much in the range of fan boy speculation, though good fan boy speculation, while others is informed by historical, anthropological, art history, or cultural studies perspectives.

I told the group that we should learn from other fields which have sought to tackle materials beloved at Comic-Con: the teaching of film studies at the university level has broadened the public’s background and tastes, especially around independent films, foreign films, and documentaries and thus expanded the market for kinds of films which don’t play at the local multiplex; Game Studies has helped to rally a defense of the medium against censorship, with scholars being able to add credibility to industry participants concerned about freedom of expression issues. Both of these represent directions that Comic Studies could take. On the other hand, I fear that science fiction has been badly served by being folded into Literature programs with many college courses emphasizing only those works which are already in the canon but which can claim some association with SF, rather than dealing with the popular and pulp roots of the genre and the ways they influenced a much broader range of cultural materials. I worry that comics scholarship may emphasize indie and alternative comics at the expense of the popular roots of the medium, taking a “no capes, no flight” philosophy which again only accepts those works which can be most easily embraced by the literary and art worlds.

The panel on Harry Potter fandom was organized by Eric Bowling and included many of the key players in the fandom: Leslie Combemale from ArtInsights Gallery; Melissa Anetelli, webmistress for the Leaky Cauldron and author of the best-selling Harry: A History, Gwendolyn Grace of the HP Educational Fanon, Time Magazine critic Lev Grossman, and Heidi Tandy, a founder of the Fiction Alley website. I had gotten to know many of these great people through my participation the previous week at Azkatraz, a Harry Potter fan gathering in San Francisco. Here, there was lots of concern raised about Warner Brother’s lack of Harry Potter promotion at Comic-Con and whether the fans still exert any meaningful influence over what happens next with this franchise. It was astonishing to me to see the number of people waiting in line for this session, which was standing room only and turned many away. A few came no doubt expecting to see cast-members, but most came to “represent” for their fandom.

There’s so much more to tell but I am hoping this will give you some taste of the pleasures of this year’s Comic-Con.

Confessions of a Superhero: An Interview with Filmmaker Matt Ogden

Superman on couch.jpg

Earlier this month, documentary filmmaker Matt Ogden released his most recent film, Confessions of a Superhero, on dvd. I first became aware of this film, which depicts the personal lives of the people who perform the parts of superheroes in front of Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood, when it played at the South By Southwest Film Festival in Austin. Ogens’ previous work includes Timeless and The Life for ESPN,

Players for VH1, each of which deals in one way or another with the colorful personalities behind the scenes in sports and show business. The film is hauntingly beautiful, showing us something of the fantasy lives of its protagonists, as well as heartbreaking in its depiction of these men and women, their motives for performing, their professional dreams and disappointments, and the society they have created for themselves. There are places where the film edges a bit too close to pathologizing its subjects for my taste, but there’s always something to complicate any easy judgment we might want to make about these people and the choices they’ve made with their lives. You can learn a good deal more about the film over at their engaging homepage or at Myspace. You can also see some sample sequences on Youtube, including this sequence of Superman working the streets, an exploration of the economic realities of street performing, The Hulk’s account of his struggle to escape homelessness, and a sequence showing the superheroes at home getting ready to perform.

What first attracted you about this topic? In your Director’s statement, you describe a process which takes you from estrangement towards a closer identification with your subjects. How did this reassessment of these people and their lives come about?

I’m always attracted to stories about the underdog, about people on the fringes of society, or just interesting, sometimes quirky characters. At first, I thought it would be an oddball comedy documentary. Who would dress up and work for tips on Hollywood Boulevard? After we began production, Los Angeles became a character in itself. The city draws so many different types of people from all over the world seeking fame and fortune. It’s a cliché, yet it’s true. As I delved deeper into filming, I discovered these “superheroes” aren’t much different than myself on the inside; and not much different than the other seekers in Hollywood. They want to make it. They want success. Deep down they want to matter, to make a difference. Don’t we all want that, whether it’s through acting, as a doctor, lawyer, entrepreneur, or teaching? Success comes in many forms – money to some, awards to others, a sense of accomplishment, et cetera – but in the end we all want to feel like we’re enough. It’s easy to judge people that are different. At first glance most would say they do not relate to these characters. But stick around and get to no anyone and you just might find something you have in common. I did.

Many of your earlier films — The Life about sports, Players about Ludacris — dealt with celebrities in the traditional sense of the word. This film deals with people who see themselves as having found fame but not fortune, as one of the characters puts it, having acquired fame for the characters they perform but not as a result of their own personalities. How did that earlier work shape your perception of these people? What did making this film suggest to you about the culture of celebrity?

I’m an idealist. I think celebrity is ridiculous. Then, why the hell did I choose this career, you might ask? I love it. I love telling stories. And I don’t mind being paid for it, but I don’t need the fame. I just don’t care about Paris Hilton or Lindsay Lohan. People should be recognized, if it all, for being good at what they do, what they contribute, not for who they date or who they made a sex tape with. I’d like to think the other people I’ve directed whether it’s a hip hop artist named Ludacris or an MVP in the NBA or NFL, are more than just celebrities. They are good at their chosen professions whether anyone knows their names or not – they are great at what they do. Celebrity is just a natural offshoot of that. It’s when people become celebrities for doing nothing that I don’t relate to. When it’s not about their profession, but what they do when they’re not working – that is not what I want to learn about.

The characters in my film have found a different kind of fame. They’ve been featured on Jimmy Kimmel, Jay Leno, in magazines and interview shows all over the world. But they’re not household names. And most people don’t know their real names. They just recognize them for the characters they portray. And there is nothing wrong with that. In Robert Fritz’s book The Path of Least Resistance he states “the path by which you move from where you are in your life to where you want to be cannot be put into a formula.” This applies to my career as a director, even more so to these characters. This is their path and the road they chose to hopefully find success in the entertainment industry. Who’s to say they want find it? Not me.

As far as celebrity goes, I do feel kids today want to be famous as opposed to a great actor. They want to be filthy rich, drive a Bentley GT Continental and where a Rolex instead of playing basketball for the love of the game or making music because they have to make music. Entertainment is a means to an end for a lot of people. If you aspire to be a celebrity, well…good luck, I guess.

In your director’s statement, you said, “At first I wanted to show the eccentricities of these characters, but I didn’t want to take the easy route and simply make fun of them. I wanted to peel the onion and go deeper.” What steps did you take to avoid the stereotypes and preconceptions that your viewers might have about these people?

I attempted to keep my point of view out of the film. Once you turn the camera on, even if you never ask a question, reality is manipulated of course. People act different in front of a camera. In most family photos everyone is smiling. As soon as mom points a camera at you, you’re trained to smile. Same with moving pictures sometimes. But I kept myself out of it as much as possible. If you laugh at the characters, they’re being themselves and I’m not editing it in such a way as to get you to laugh at them. Im just showing you, the audience, what happened. As I got to know them better while filming I began to empathize with them. I hope the audience will take the same journey I did and end up rooting for the characters by the end, or at least some of them.

How have your subjects responded to this film? On the one hand, you do give them a kind of visibility on the screen. As they suggest in relation to the news coverage of the arrest of Elmo and Mr. Fantastic, all publicity has a value in their world. On the other hand, you really don’t pull many punches here in terms of depicting some of the painful and humiliating aspects of their lives. Yet, several of your subjects came out to South By Southwest to help you promote the film.

Certainly, I was concerned and curious as to how they would react, particularly Max, who portrays Batman. He is definitely the antagonist, or villain of the film, if there is a villain. Truth be told, I do not know how Max feels about the film. Chris “Superman” Dennis seems to love it. Some people love recognition whether it’s for good or bad reasons. Bad publicity is better than no publicity. I’m sure there’s a little bit of this in play.

At SXSW, Superman and Hulk were celebrities. People loved seeing them there. And they deserved the notoriety.

One of the striking components of the film is the visual style — especially your use of still photographs and oversaturated colors. How did these two stylistic choices come about and what do they signal about your relationship to this content?

From the moment the idea came to me, I knew I wanted this to be a visual documentary. In my opinion, a film should look as good as the story its telling. Charlie Gruet, the director of photography and a producer on the film, set out to give a style to the film, and not just shoot willy-nilly. The idea was to make this look cinematic, filmic, like you’re watching a narrative film, not a talking head corporate video. All of the verite moments on the boulevard were shot handheld, in a fly on the wall style. The sit down interviews, scenics of Los Angeles, and specialty shots were more set up and art directed. But we didn’t make things look “cool” for the sake of it. Each set, if you can call it that, was discussed and reasoned. Superman was interviewed on a vinyl couch against patterned wallpaper as if he was in Martha Kent’s country home in the movie or comic book versions of Superman. Batman was shot in a cavernous warehouse (instead of a cave), but you get the point. Batman’s past is dark. And we wanted a darker setting for him.

In addition to directing, I also shoot stills and we always shot during production for marketing materials, the website, posters, etc. The idea to use stills within the film didn’t come until late in the process. We didn’t settle on using still photos for the transitions until a month before we locked picture. We felt the composition of the photos complemented the sit down interviews and helped tell the story.

You clearly portray Christopher Dennis not simply as someone who performs the part of Superman but as a hardcore fan, someone who actively collects Superman related materials, who hero worships Christopher Reeves, and who shows clear disappointment when he doesn’t win the costume competition.

Chris “Superman” Dennis is hardcore. He is obsessive about his character to the nth degree. The others certainly have an affinity for their characters, but not nearly to the extent as Chris. I personally feel Chris has lost himself in his character and I think he would agree. I know his wife Bonnie would agree. He so much want to be a leading actor, he is only known as Hollywood Superman. I think he’s afraid of shedding the costume. He has an identity with it and without it he may feel no one will recognize him.

How did you select these particular characters out of the dozens of other performers you suggest are working in this same space? What made these stories stand out against the pack?

It was not a long “casting” process. I thought it would take forever to find the right characters. There are probably 80 people who work on and off on the boulevard and we highlight four of them – Superman, Batman, The Hulk, and Wonder Woman. First, I decided early on to stick with recognizable superheroes. For one, I felt like Superman or Wonder Woman was more iconic and forever then Sponge Bob or Freddie Krueger. Also, I felt that superheroes would make a good metaphor for the lives of the people inside the costumes.

Superman was the first character I approached. He looked like one of the leaders out there. That’s how he carried himself. He introduced me to the others. I could have kept “casting.” We did have a Spiderman character, played by Spike Henderson. And he was a great character. As opposed to trying to make it as an actor, this ex-professional golfer is trying to qualify for the Senior’s Tour. We just didn’t get enough footage of him. He didn’t allow us enough access into his life to make a full story with an arc, so we had to leave him on the cutting room floor.

The film suggests at places that there is a hierarchy among the performers who work the Strip — with Superman as a leader of sorts within this community — as well as some antagonisms between some of the performers. What can you tell us about the community of personalities who interact in this space? Are there, for example, rival Superman performers competing for the same bit of turf or is there an understanding that once a character is taken, newcomers need to assume new roles?

Chris Superman Dennis certainly is the self-proclaimed leader of the boulevard. I don’t know if the other characters would agree. But he is probably one of the most knowledegable out there. And he takes the unwritten code of the boulevard seriously. I never witnessed a second Superman but I did see rivals of other characters. Max Batman Allen has had a longstanding rivalry with another Batman character. The two have had many arguments over the years (with police involvement at times). People know what the rules are but don’t always follow them so you will see duplicate characters and they compete for tips, argue, and sabatoge one another. This is how these people put food on their tables so someone coming on the boulevard with the same outfit is a problem they must take seriously. It is quite a soap opera out there. I spent two years witnessing it. God, I’m exhausted.

Catching Up on Fan Culture…

Converging Worlds

I have been hearing rumors for a while that Convergence Culture is being picked up and read by some of the Powers That Be (i.e. the producers and writers of cult television shows). This certainly seems to be the case on Heroes, according to this recent interview which Wonderland ran with Jesse Alexander, the Exec Producer of Alias, Lost and Heroes:

So you manage how the Heroes property moves through other mediums?

Yes, it was always seen as a transmedia property from day one. I read Henry Jenkins’ Convergence Culture: you should read that if you haven’t. To take a brand into the transmedia landscape.. a teevee show through the transmedia landscape, especially a serialized show like Heroes, well, we use a lot of techniques that are very germane to the way that videogames are made.

The writing of Heroes is done by 10-12 people, we come up with the stories together, and we write every episode together. That’s an ensemble narrative,. One person can write a story for Peter over multiple episodes, and keep the consistency. What this allows us to do is to keep the whole team totally up to date and vested with the whole show, it harvests the hivemind focus, to deliver a quality narrative. We do rapid prototyping, we iterate on it.. It’s that constant iteration and rewriting that gets things done.

The interview as a whole is worth reading. Alexander returns several times to the topic of transmedia entertainment and what it means in the context of a convergence culture:

Everyone knows I talk about convergence.. […] These big media companies are looking for new ways to exploit their properties. ARGs. Comics. I’m lucky enough to be part of some shows where we worked on these things, and there’s convergence with creators of TV and movies.. you have to understand how you can exploit your IP in all those spaces, in a way that’s authentic to your IP and won’t damage it.

With Heroes, we connect all the things we do with the brand, it’s connected to the show. The comic book is part of the canon of the show, it has value. That’s why we need the huge team, there has to be enough people to generate that content.

We’ve done .. It’s difficult to call what we do in Heroes an ARG. Is it transmedia television? We’re using ARG components.. and that’s something that we look to expand in the future. With these large media companies, they desperately want to do this, to exploit this entertainment, and they’re still trying to find the structure to actualize that….

Alexander also manages to name check Steven Johnson’s work on complexity and Jane McGonigal’s work on ARGS and collective intelligence.

Regular readers know that I have been on the Heroes bandwagon since last summer — having caught an advance peek at the series pilot before it reached the air. Pulling this post together, drew me back to that original piece which read Heroes as closer to an indie comic in its tone and structure than to the mainstream superhero comics that have shaped most other television and big screen stories in the genre. I offered some hints about where I thought the series might be going:

These characters embody forms of longing and desperation that one rarely sees on television – if for no other reason than that the problems they face are unlikely to be solved by a bite from a radioactive spider or a burst of Gamma rays, let alone by mouthwash or toothpaste. And there are moments here which remind me of films like Crash or Grand Canyon, where people from very different backgrounds cross through each others lives and sometimes have unintended consequences. As the series proceeds, I have no doubt that these lives, seeming so separate at the outset, will become more and more intertwined. In the short term, though, viewers can enjoy looking for subtle — and not so subtle — hints of connections between them.

Its somewhat bitter aftertaste links the series more closely with Brian Woods’ Demo than to most mainstream superhero comics. The characters here seem drawn earthward – more like suicidal jumpers – rather than skyward. None of them yet knows how to leap over tall buildings with a single bound and we are left with the sense that they are going to have to struggle to bring their emerging powers under their control and to make sense of their impact on their self perceptions. As with Demo, these characters aren’t going to run right out and buy fancy new superhero duds anytime soon and it is not yet clear that any of them is ready to take on great responsibilities when they are barely able to solve their own inner demons.

Around the edges, there are hints of dark secrets, perhaps a government conspiracy, perhaps bad guys who are going to track down those with powers and force them to make a choice about where they stand, but the first episode allows the protagonists to wallow in their various emotional responses to the discovery that they are not like mortal men. This is a series which will provide lots of fodder for internet speculation and decipherment within the fan communities that it is apt to inspire.

Throughout the year, I have admired the ways that the series has dispersed back story through imaginatively structured episodes and through the use of web comics as a platform of transmedia entertainment. And I was pleased that themes I saw in the characters from the pilot really took root and defined their interactions, including the prolonged focus on what it means to discover your powers and to define your “mission.” So, I am personally very pleased to see Alexander describe my book as helping to shape his thinking on these issues.

“Wiki-Media”

I am always excited to see other academics who do important work in media or cultural studies get hit with the blogging bug. A case in point: Robert Kozinets. Kozinets is a marketing professor currently at ork University’s Schulich School of Business in Toronto. Kozinets has done some of the ground-breaking work on brand communities and their relationship to fan communities. I served on his dissertation committee years ago — his project centered around consumption and production within Star Trek fan culture. I rediscovered his work while doing research for Convergence Culture and his ideas informed my discussion of American Idol. More recently, Kozinets joined our Convergence Culture Consortium team and I was able to showcase his work on Star Trek fan cinema at the Society for Cinema Studies conference last spring.

If you don’t know his work, you should check out his blog. He’s hit on several topics of relevance to my readers so far, including several posts which share his insights into the history of Star Trek fandom and Star Trek fan cinema, which he reads through the lens of more recent concepts such as “brand hijacking” (Alex Wipperfürth), Lead Users (Eric Von Hipple) and Wikinomics (Don Tapscott and Anthony Williams). He shares an interesting excerpt from an anthology he has co-edited, Consumer Tribes, one which uses wikipedia to develop an analogy for thinking about fan movie-makers:

Star Trek has gone native or, better, it has gone wiki-it is now “wikimedia.” Fans add to Star Trek and correct one another just like Wikipedia encyclopedia contributors add to the famously expansive universe of the online encyclopedia. By the term “wikimedia” I mean to describe a distinct media content form that has, either deliberately or unintentionally, gone open source and begun spawning new content through the efforts of non-profit, do-it-yourself, collaborative media creators acting outside of the structure of corporate, institutional organization or sanction. The existence and notioning of wikimedia has major implications for our understanding of contemporary consumer culture….

Kozinet’s use of the concept of Wiki-Media seems relevant given the recent discussion here of “Wiki-Fic” as a way of thinking about the interface between fan fiction and transmedia storytelling.

Other posts to date have dealt with Philip K. Dick and Burning Man. Kozinet’s blog will be worth following as he explores the social dimensions of brands and branded entertainment.

I am going to be taking the rest of the week off: there’s no new gender and fan studies content this week and I am going to be enjoying the 4th with my family.

Sneak Preview: NBC’s Heroes

If a superhero can be such a powerful and effective metaphor for male adolescence, then what else can you do with them? Could you build a superhero story around a metaphor for female adolescence? Around midlife crisis? Around the changes adults go through when they become parents? Sure, why not? And if a superhero can exemplify America’s self image at the dawn of World War II, could a superhero exemplify America’s self image during the less-confident 1970s? How about the emerging national identity of a newly-independent African nation? Or a nontraditional culture, like the drug culture, or the ‘greed is good’ business culture of the go-go Eighties. Of course. If it can do one, it can do the others.

- Kurt Busiek, introduction to Astro City: Life in the Fast Lane

The San Diego Comicon has become one of the landmark events in the world of branded entertainment. Begun as a fan convention, Comicon has become much much more. While comics readers remain a small, tight-knit, niche market, the influence of comics extends outward to shape all other entertainment media. As longtime DC editor Denny O’Neil told the Comparative Media Studies colloquium several years ago, comics now constitute the “R&D” sector of the American media – comics don’t make much money themselves but they test strategies, model content, and experiment with new relationships to their readers, which will later be deployed across film, television, and video games.

In such a context, the country’s biggest comics convention has also become a test market for a range of new entertainment franchises. Take a look at the list of new films and television shows which will be previewed before the Comicon crowd this weekend. Producers, directors, network executives, and cast are waiting anxiously to see how the Comicon crowd will respond to their brainchildren.

One of the shows which will get its first public airing at San Diego this year is NBC’s new superhero drama, Heroes. I was lucky enough to get my own advanced look at the series (don’t ask how…) and wanted to offer my own thoughts on how it is apt to be received within comics fan culture. There will be a fair amount of spoiler information in this piece, but you are going to have to click to the continuation page to see it. If you just want some broad evaluative comments and background, you can keep reading this top level and then skip to the very end.

Unlike most previous stabs at superhero television, Heroes is not adopted from an existing comics franchise; it was created specifically for television, though its creative team includes several who have solid comics pedigrees – notably Jeph Loeb (best known at the moment for the Batman: Hush series). So far, searching the web, it would seem that the series has only started to register on the radar of most superhero fans, who are still nursing disappointment that two other highly publicized pilots – the adaptation of the Luna Brother’s Ultra miniseries (imagine the Ben and JLo story told in a world where superheroes replace movie stars as the favorite topic for celebrity gossip) and Mercy Reef, (a Smallville-style version of the Aquaman mythos) – were not picked up for the fall schedule. What little online discussion I’ve found suggested that its premise, which bears a superficial relationship to X-Men, led to it being perceived as similar in spirit to Mutant X, a short-lived series which borrowed heavily from (i.e. “ripped off”) the established Marvel franchise. If fans are imagining a rapid-paced, larger-than-life and somewhat campy superhero romp, they are in for a surprise.

This show owes more to indie and alternative comics than it does to the DC and Marvel universes: its tone comes closest to Brian Woods’ remarkable Demo series of last year (more on this later) or perhaps the kinds of stories one is apt to find at publishers such as Vertigo, Dark Horse, Image, or Oni. I call such publishers mid-stream: that is, not quite mainstream and not quite alternative. They tend to build on conventions of established genres, but pull them in innovative new directions. Their stories tend to be quirky and personal, somewhat dark, intellectually challenging, socially subversive, and aimed at more mature comics readers. These are my favorite kinds of comic books, ones that seem to fall through the cracks between the two main comics news magazines, Wizard (whose editors never met a mainstream superhero they didn’t like) and Comics Journal (whose editors never met a mainstream superhero comic they did like), but often attract enthusiastic interest for online fan publications, such as The Sequential Tart. Hopefully, if you are a comics fans, these reference points can help you calibrate your expectations.

If you are television fan, it might be helpful to describe this as “must see TV,” that is, a quality drama with an ensemble cast and well orchestrated story arcs, focused more on its character’s inner struggles than on external struggles (so far, the only character to wear anything remotely resembling a traditional superhero costume is wearing a cheerleader uniform.) I would place it roughly in the tradition of The X-Files, Lost, and Prison Break in both its emotional tone and its intellectual demands on the viewer.

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