The Transmedia Turn in Popular Culture: The Case of Comic-Con

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Comic-Con was founded by freelance artist and comics enthusiast Sheldon "Shel" Dorf in 1970. The first Comic-Con, a modest affair with approximately 300 attendees, took place at the U.S. Grant Hotel in San Diego (Gustines). While this inaugural convention may have been primarily a fringe gathering of dedicated comic book readers and fan boys, the event has since become the largest celebration of contemporary popular culture on the planet. In July of 2011, Comic-Con (transferred, since 1991, to the San Diego Convention Center with its 600,000+ square feet of exhibit space and 200,000+ square feet of meeting rooms) sold out in less than 24 hours and drew a crowd of approximately 150,000 attendees. Far from the niche comic book convention that the name might imply, Comic-Con (short for "San Diego Comic-Con International") has expanded its scope dramatically to introduce fans to the most recent releases in comics, novels, film, television, videogames, podcasts, digital art, and more. The event combines marketing campaigns, industry exhibitions, artist-led tutorials, studio screenings, indie unveilings, and even the academic Comic Arts Conference that has now drawn me to the convention on six occasions.

Each year, Comic-Con finds itself awash with costume-clad visitors and intriguing lineups of presenters. Many panels promise odd or unexpected juxtapositions of writers, artists, and producers from different realms of contemporary creative culture. This year, for instance, renowned comic book writer Grant Morrison (The Invisibles, All-Star Superman) participated in a discussion with new age spiritual guru Deepak Chopra (Quantum Healing, Everyday Immortality) about the cultural importance of superheroes to early twenty-first century society. On another panel, Nebula and Hugo award-winning science fiction novelist Greg Bear (Blood Music, Darwin's Radio) joined 343 Industries creative director Frank O'Connor (Halo) and Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game writer Tony Gonzales (Eve Online) to explore the topic of writing for videogames and cross-media story franchises. A massive crowd at Hall H (a space with 6,500 seats that has become known for its all-star Hollywood panels) came to see acclaimed film directors Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson discuss their collaboration adapting Georges Rémi's Belgian comic book series The Adventures of Tintin into a motion-capture 3D feature film.

These presentations and hundreds of others are suggestive of recent trends, directions, and experiments taking place in contemporary popular culture. The influence of digital production and internet-enabled fan communities on mainstream entertainment and emergent art forms has been particularly evident in recent years. Mirroring industry trends, computer and video games have assumed an increasingly major role at Comic-Con. This year, the big three companies Sony, Nintendo, and Microsoft as well as third-party developers such as Harmonix and Capcom hosted exhibitions, demos, and game tournaments. Fledgling digital genres have also found a place at the convention over the last few years. Notably, online scavenger hunts such as 42 Entertainment's Why So Serious? (a spin-off of Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight) and the Fringe Alternate Reality Game have recruited players and featured their introductory "rabbit holes" at Comic-Con. Additionally, Q&A panels about popular web comics, how-to sessions about computer graphics art techniques, and debates about the future of digital distribution have taken up a greater percentage of the convention's programming each year.

Beyond the presence of the digital game and comics industries this year, several filmmakers discussed their experiences with emerging technologies. Notably, Francis Ford Coppola introduced his forthcoming film Twixt, accompanied by lead actor Val Kilmer and electronic music composer Dan Deacon. Coppola reflected on "the evolving technology of the cinema" and the many potential futures of 3D film, which has, especially since the success of James Cameron's Avatar (2009), experienced the sort of prolonged mainstream success that was not spurred by earlier 3D productions such as House of Wax (1953) and Hitchcock's Dial M for Murder (1954). Recent big budget Hollywood films released exclusively in 2D, such as Cowboys and Aliens, may even have underperformed because of a lack of a 3D option (Greenwald and Brown). Taking an unconventional route, Twixt introduces limited 3D sequences that will not require viewers to wear glasses throughout the entire film. Coppola's more dramatic experiment, however, has to do with dynamic film assembly. Digital formats extend the scope, speed, and ease with which recorded works of art can be distributed. However, they also have the potential to reinvigorate cinema with a "live" sense that has more frequently informed discussions about theater, musical performance, and early silent films (with their live orchestral accompaniments). Coppola plans to travel with Twixt and perform different versions of the film that he adjusts, on the spot, based on the reactions of each audience. Since movies are now composed of digital files, and not celluloid film, scenes can easily be reordered and remixed in real-time. For Twixt, Coppola's team has worked with an extension of Isadora software, which allows the real-time manipulation and interactive control of digital video.

Another film director, Kevin Smith (Clerks, Chasing Amy), described a different series of directions in which digital technologies and social media have guided his creative work. In an extended Q&A session that has become an annual Comic-Con tradition, Smith spoke extensively about his transition from independent filmmaking to daily podcasts. The "democratization" inherent in podcast production and consumption, as well as its capacity to communicate stories without the burden of accumulating multi-million dollar film budgets, have been especially appealing facets of the medium. In addition to his podcasts, Smith has started a podcast transcription service called PodBookz that, building on the success of ventures such as TweetBookz, transcribes and publishes podcasts in print form. While Smith claims to be winding down his career as a filmmaker in order to pursue new media directions, he is also experimenting with an unconventional distribution strategy for his upcoming horror film Red State. The movie began with a U.S. screening tour, continued with a limited run at Quentin Tarantino's New Beverly Cinema, and will soon find its primary distribution online.

This handful of examples suggests the growing centrality of digital technologies and formats in the production, exhibition, distribution, and dynamic reconfiguration of contemporary art and storytelling. More importantly, these instances point to a complex media ecology that is, in many senses, taking on both multimedia and transmedia dimensions. This ongoing metamorphosis certainly has much to do with the digital computer's technical capacity to translate all previous media into numerical data and consequently to enable new combinations of and interactions among these media. But this transformation is as much cultural as technological. Henry Jenkins, in particular, has characterized the cultural shift in the circulation of media content across systems, which began in the late twentieth century, as "convergence." Jenkins defines "convergence" as "the flow of content across multiple media platforms, the cooperation between multiple media industries, and the migratory behavior of media audiences who will go almost anywhere in search of the kinds of entertainment experiences they want" (2). One of the key attributes of convergence culture is that unlike stand-alone films or episodic television shows meant for passive one-off consumption, users are now "encouraged to seek out new information and make connections among dispersed media content" (3). An early example of specifically transmedia convergence was The Matrix franchise. Rather than a trilogy of films, Jenkins observes, The Matrix was a mythology or a world that stretched across various media, including videogames (Enter the Matrix), animated shorts (The Animatrix), Matrix comics (written by comics luminaries such as Neil Gaiman), and a Massively Multiplayer Role-Playing Game (The Matrix Online). These works were not discrete products. They were interdependent to the point that viewers could not completely make sense of the films without exploring extensions of the story in other media.

Comic-Con, which has developed into a premier forum for the popular arts across media, has exemplified the growth of convergence culture, but also some of the problems that accompany it. For all of the celebrity participation in this year's convention, Hollywood, in particular, has reportedly scaled back its role in the event. In previous years, studios such as Warner Brothers and Universal put on large-scale presentations and staged mixed media marketing stunts for films like Sucker Punch and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (Barnes and Cieply). These campaigns and many others failed, anticipating and in some cases even precipitating box office failures. Either the excitement of this self-selected group did not predict the eventual interest of a broader public, or even worse for the studios the sizeable crowds left unsatisfied with previews, generating negative buzz. Such commercial disappointments suggest that convergence culture, though it has become increasingly mainstream with the proliferation of digital media throughout the first world, is only starting to take shape and is likely to experience considerable growing pains in coming years. Centralized distributors, such as Hollywood studios and recording labels, will continue to struggle within a culture shaped by the decentralized internet. Of course, even today, online communities are contributing to the success of productions and experimenting with transmedia storytelling. Fans of the ABC television show Lost, for instance, famously made it a hit by producing countless websites, wikis, fan fictions, and YouTube videos; consuming mobisodes, podcasts, tie-in novels, and the official Lost magazine; attending panels about the show at Comic-Con; and even participating in The Lost Experience Alternate Reality Game.

For scholars of contemporary culture, Comic-Con can be approached simultaneously as an anomalous and exemplary event. On one hand, the intensity and multiplicity of convergences in which the convention's attendees take part are not wholly representative of present-day American or international popular culture. Participants, after all, are primarily (though no longer exclusively) super-fans willing to travel to San Diego and pay the considerable ticket prices (a full access adult pass will cost $175 in 2012) for the opportunity to wear elaborate costumes, learn about upcoming releases, and celebrate the fictional worlds that they find most compelling. Further straying from the norm, many of these convention-goers are arguably at the upper end of pop-culture literacy and media savvy. On the other hand, even as Comic-Con does not perfectly mirror the present state of art and entertainment, it serves as an experimental laboratory for its most cutting-edge developments across the independent-to-mainstream spectrum. The convergences that one witnesses between old and new media, between originals and adaptations, between fan cultures and digital technologies suggest that Comic-Con is the crest of an enormous wave. In this sense, the convention is more a suggestive microcosm than an atypical spectacle.

Comic-Con is of interest in its own right, as an organization and an event, but it also serves as an occasion for reflecting upon the status of the contemporary and the study of the popular arts. For several decades, cultural studies has called into question artificial distinctions between the literary and the popular that the humanities have nonetheless still not entirely abandoned. Increasingly, scholars are likely to analyze not only poetry, epics, theater, and novels, but also comics, television, videogames, and virtual worlds. The crucial turn to popular forms and electronic media expands our ability to make sense of the present. At the same time, it remains important that these latter forms not be treated instrumentally, as less accomplished cultural productions that serve as a necessary means to the loftier ends of cultural theory. As critics are beginning to recognize, these art forms have their own grammars and media-specific features. As such, they demand serious aesthetic and formal engagement.

The study of multimedia franchises and transmedia stories emerging in the early twenty-first century calls for different analytical methods than those generally applied to art forms created in earlier periods (even when those forms are read in larger cultural contexts). Comic-Con suggests the insufficiency of criticism that distances critic from art object. The convention puts on display artistic convergences that require an augmentation of accepted literary critical approaches such as close reading, historicism, and critical theory with real-time digital engagement, participant observation, and interactive play methods that have, in the past, been more proper to fields such as cultural anthropology. Real-time networks, popularized by the World Wide Web in the early 1990s and extended globally (though unevenly) through the recent propagation of smart phones and mobile technologies, radically alter literary production and reception. Making sense of these transformations and their histories remains a critical part of the difficult task of understanding a present moment that structurally both limits and extends our ability to think it.

Patrick Jagoda is Mellon postdoctoral fellow of new media and soon to be Assistant Professor of English at the University of Chicago. He is beginning work on a book manuscript tentatively entitled Network Aesthetics.

Works Cited

Barnes, Brook and Michael Cieply. "Movie Studios Reassess Comic-Con." New York Times 12 June 2011.

Greenwald, Andy and Lane Brown. "Bomb Shelter: Why Did Cowboys & Aliens Fail?" Grantland 2August 2011.

Gustines, George Gene. "Sheldon Dorf, Founder of Comic-Con, Dies at 76." New York Times 12 November 2009.

Jenkins., Henry. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide.  New York: NYU Press, 2006.