How Film and Television industries have used Comic Books to augment their narratives through Transmedia Storytelling.
This paper seeks to discuss how the film and television industries are using the comic book medium for the purpose of transmedia storytelling. This paper uses franchises such as The Matrix, The X-Files, and Star Wars as examples of transmedia storytelling to various degrees of success, and exploring why the choice to use comic books was made, in reflection to the time of inception. The paper also provides a distinction between adapting a franchise to the comic book medium and expanding the narrative to include it.
As forms of media have evolved, they have provided us with “multiple models for exploration” [McLuhan & Fiore, 1967: 69], that lead to various possibilities in the realm of storytelling. With multiple media available for creators to work in, comes an opportunity to expand a narrative through the practice of transmedia storytelling, allowing a story to be told across a multitude of platforms, in contrast to the practice of adaptation which takes a story from one medium and retells it through another [Hutcheon, 2006]. A creative and attractive use of transmedia can become deeply immersive for an audience, and in many cases the consumers can see that what is available through just one medium as not enough, thereby creating a demand for more [Scolari, Beretti & Freeman, 2014: 2]. In an early example of fan outcry [Lycett, 2011], Arthur Conan Doyle was persuaded to bring his most iconic character, Sherlock Holmes, back from the dead after 16 years, in The Adventure of the Empty House [Doyle, 1903]. With the forming of a transmedia franchise, “the audience becomes a participant” [McLuhan & Fiore, 1967: 101], with the ability to pick and choose what they wish to see in a particular medium and influence what is produced, unlike an adapted story that simply offers the same story retold in a different format [Jenkins, 2006]. Despite the term ‘transmedia storytelling’ only being coined in 2003 by Henry Jenkins, examples of the practice have existed far longer. The format can find its roots in the Japanese practice of ‘Media Mix’ culture [Jenkins, 2006], with Osamu Tezuka’s Tetsuwan Atomu [Tezuka, 1952 – 1968] (known as Astro Boy in the West) being cited as one of its first examples [Steinberg, 2012] [Schodt, 2007].
For a transmedia franchise to be successful, it must offer the consumer choice. The audience must be able to consume any piece of the franchise in any order, enjoy a coherent story and have the choice to dive in further, not the obligation [Weaver, 2013: 44]. The longer the audience wish to remain in that world, the greater the franchise’s perceived worth. Henry Jenkins has described transmedia storytelling, most simply as being “the art of world building” [Jenkins, 2006: 24]. While a film or television project could be said to already inhabit this principle, the use of transmedia storytelling opens “a new door within the great realm” [Manard, 2015: 9] can be reached, creating a universe rather than just a world. These vast universes allow an audience the opportunity to explore at their leisure, and the choice of how much they are “willing to discover” [Weaver, 2013: 44].
A strong example of transmedia storytelling in action, is that of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) [Faveru, 2008] (the collection term given to the current selection of Marvel films) from Marvel Entertainment, now a subsidiary of Disney since 2009 [Clarke, 2009]. Despite the MCU beginning as adaptations of Marvel properties, dating back as far as 1941’s Captain America #1 [Simon & Kirby, 1941], with careful planning and production [Howe, 2012] Marvel declared to its global audience that it is on the front line of transmedia implementation” [Menard, 2015: 12], announcing that its multiple films, television series structured universe. Hollywood’s adoption of the comic book medium has long existed even before the MCU, with early examples including Adventures of Captain Marvel [English & Witney, 1941] and the Fleisher Studio Superman cartoons [Fleisher, 1941].
Comic books can and have provided the opportunity to discuss a wide and varied range of subject matters, “as a form that can both reveal the mindset and the thinking of its characters and also has a robust language for action” [Dowd, 2015: 204]. While the superhero genre is the most prominent in the comic book medium, there have been several points in history where romance and horror comics have outsold their superhero counterparts, particularly after the Second World War [Howe, 2012]. Despite the consensus that comic books are solely restricted to superhero and action adventure subjects, perpetuated with big screen adaptations such as Kingsman: The Secret Service [Vaughn, 2014] and The Dark Knight [Nolan, 2008], it is important to remember their versatility, that the message should never be mistaken for the messenger [McCloud, 1994: 6]. The genre possibilities for comics are just as open and broad as those available to film or television. Comics can, and have, explored multiple genres, characters and themes, including real world re-enactments, such as Maus [Spiegleman, 1991], and sweeping space dramas, including The Ballad of Halo Jones [Moore & Gibson, 1984]. Some film and television shows are adaptations themselves of properties that may not appear to be comic book at first glance, such as Blue is the Warmest Colour [Kechiche, 2013] and The Diary of a Teenage Girl [Heller, 2015], strengthening the proof of the comic book mediums versatility.
Despite the wide variety of choice genre-wise, the most common genres used for adaptation and transmedia purposes, are science fiction and fantasy. The science fiction genre in particular is one that never fades. “it may pass out of fashion for a time, only to return in updated garb” [Bordwell & Thompson, 2004: 116]. The science fiction and fantasy genres are already open to world building, thanks to their origins as evolutions from fantastic voyage tales [Haley, 2014: 8], and so it is natural that they would be the most frequently experimented with in the transmedia practice. However the idea of a ‘tie-in’ comic may be seen in some circles as relatively unremarkable and of little interest to any other than “die-hard fan boys looking to fill the gaps between TV seasons” [Fingeroth, 2008: 269]. Nevertheless, they can also be seen as examples of what Henry Jenkins refers to as “meta-text” [Jenkins, 1992], offering readers a chance to experience the characters and hallmarks of the series outside of the screen [Pillai, 2003: 102]. While there are numerous examples of transmedia storytelling in action, three notable entries for various reasons are that of Star Wars [Lucas, 1977], The X-Files [Carter, 1993 – 2016], and The Matrix [Wachowskis, 1999] franchises.
The Star Wars franchise provides both an early and prime example of transmedia practice at work. When Star Wars [Lucas, 1977] was in the process of being released, it became imperative that attention was drawn to the project through other media, due to the distributor and executives’ lack of faith in the project [Haley, 2014]. It was decided that attracting early attention through comic books would be an ideal choice [Taylor, 2015: 160], and approaching Marvel Comics’ Stan Lee, and later Roy Thomas, with the proposal for a six issue adaptation, distributed so the third issue would be available before the film opened [Howe, 2012: 193]. This culminated in a 107 issue run, spanning all three films, the time in-between, and the aftermath [Taylor, 2015: 280 – 281] [Thomas, et. al., 1977 – 1986]. At the point of issue 7, the comics transitioned from an adaptation to a transmedia franchise. With the phenomenal success of the first film, the Star Wars comic became some of the first since the Batman [Dozer, Finger & Semple Jr., 1966 – 1968] craze of 1966 to sell over a million issues, “the Star Wars adaptation brought a whole new interest to comics in a decade that was for the most part a slow one” [Weaver, 2013: 153], thus cementing Star Wars as a prime transmedia franchise early on in its lifetime. It is worth noting that at the time, the printed comics were the only way to re-experience the Star Wars films without returning to the cinema until their eventual home release, leading to the comics’ high sale rate.
Marvel used this opportunity to expand the franchise’s lore through the use of its characters, mythology and settings, and while the franchise was still young, provided a number of baselines for later entries. With the constraints of writing around both Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back [Kersher, 1980] and Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi [Marquand, 1983], the comic was able to develop and explore details that the films could not explore, due to time or budget restraints. Focusing and developing on stories of the Rebels dodging the Empire (and thus the surrounding of the movies)”, fighting “one off aliens, rogue imperial Barons and Bounty Hunters”, with the comics having to “wax and wane between adapting a new movie and telling original stories” [Whitbrock, 2015]. Through the adapted and expanded work, the comics were able to “keep that prior work alive, giving it an afterlife” [Hutcheon, 2006: 176], thus retaining interest in the property during the absences between films. The impact the original Marvel run had can still be seen, not only in the franchise’s comic book successors, but also in the most recent entry, Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens [Abrams, 2015], and most notably in its depiction of a looming threat arising after the Empire falls. The initial Marvel run is one of the first entries in what is referred to as The Expanded Universe (the collective term given in the Star Wars franchise [Taylor, 2015]), crossing multiple films, comic books, novels (such as Heir of the Empire [Zahn, 1991]), specials, cartoons, and video games (including Star Wars: The Force Unleashed [Lucas Arts, 2008]) [Taylor, 2015] [Haley, 2014], essentially, the definition of a transmedia franchise.
By 1987, Marvel had ended its run on the franchise, “merchandising came to a halt. By 1985, Star Wars fever had largely subsided” [Bowen, 2005: xi]. During the beginning of the 1990s, Dark Horse Comics had come to acquire the license and with Star Wars: Dark Empire [Veitch, 1991 – 1992], they proved themselves more than capable of maintaining the Expanded Universe as well as breathing new life into the franchise by reigniting interest [Taylor, 2015]. Many have come to hold the Dark Horse entries in high regard, able to stand “head to head with the classic films” [Saacedra, 2015] in regards to quality. Despite the casual film fan remaining largely ignorant of the Expanded Universe, or having little to no desire to dive into the material, it provided the franchise with a far greater level of depth than the films could alone. With the acquisition of Lucas Arts by Disney in 2012 [Smith, 2012], the previously built Expanded Universe became ‘non-canon’. However, Disney understood just how vital transmedia is to the Star Wars franchise and used its previous acquisition of Marvel [Clarke, 2009] to explore this universe once again, in a way that is comparable to Marvel’s earlier excursions. While each form of media provides a coherent story and would allude to or reference the other, knowledge of every form was not a necessity for enjoyment, providing the audience with the choice of what they are willing to explore.
In the case of The X-Files [Carter, 1993 – 2016], the franchise’s use of transmedia provides a contrast to that of Star Wars in their choice of a serio-episodic structure in their comic books, a similar structure to their television series’ own format. This allowed for instalments to be presented or shown in “an almost random presentation” [Mittell, 2006]. With an episodic or serio-episodic structure in place when planning a transmedia world, continuity and timeline become less of an issue. The episodic or serio-episodic structure allows for events and characters to be created and stories to be told and placed at any point in the franchise, while still remaining in continuity. This structure enables the comic books to focus on a consistency of characters and mythology, while experimenting with settings and events. In the comic industry these are usually referred to as “‘done in one’ adventures, something the Golden and Silver ages [1935 – 1956 and 1956 – 1970 respectively [Levitz, 2013]] used to great effect” [Weaver, 2013: 90]. The X-Files lends itself to the structure remarkably well, containing various revisited storylines across multiple series and films (known as the Mythology episodes) and a multitude of standalone stories. With this familiar set up already in place, it allows fans of the series to easily move over to the comic and for those introduced to The X-Files through comics to enjoy the series in a similar storytelling format. “The episodic structure makes much more use of the audience’s goodwill towards the characters, as you visit them when all is normal – not when they’re facing certain death” [Weaver, 2013: 90], thereby creating a deeper connection between the audience and the characters. The X-Files franchise was consciously built to be a cult series, “to attract the fan consumer market” [Pillai, 2013: 106]. With this cult status and fan base in place, expanding the narrative to new forms of media becomes a more attractive concept, as a dedicated fan base is ready to consume most media related to that franchise.
With the television series being considered by many as the main continuity, the prospect of moving between screen and print may appear to cheapen the printed stories’ perceived worth in the eyes of consumers. This provides the challenge of proving the comics’ worth, that while the “stapled pages of words and pictures may seem materially and culturally flimsy” [Pillai, 2013: 102], they are, just as film can be, “a vessel which can hold any number of ideas” [McCloud, 1994: 108]. In the case of The X-Files, the choice was made to bring a form of authorial ownership to the comics by reproducing the “distinctive font of the brand logo and a ‘created by Chris Carter’ banner” [Pillai, 2013: 108] to the cover and content. This decision ultimately brought a sense of worth to the comics that they may not have achieved otherwise. In addition to the seeming lack of authorship that ‘tie-in’ comics may display in relationship to their ‘parent’ medium, the difficulty also arises as to how the comic portray key characters. While this is a problem not entirely unique to The X-Files franchise, as most transmedia franchises that feature an illustrated medium will encounter it at some stage, the illustrated representations of characters are a key component in the original Topps comics’ success. A large part of a character’s identity is not only developed through the script , but through the actors’ or actresses’ interpretation of them. The original Topps line of comics [Petrucha, et. al., 1995 – 1998] would most noticeably attempt to side step the limitation, by providing photographic covers for each of the comics. However, this did not solve the initial problem, as the characters depicted in the story are clearly hand drawn caricatures. While many would cite Gillian Anderson’s physical performance as Scully as being the defining element of the character, “her gesture and her voice” are distinctly Andersons, “in contrast, comics lack motion” [Pillai, 2013: 109], the artist must in his or her own way, conjure a representation of not only the characters’ likeness but their behaviour and mannerisms in the form of static images. A notable artist in the original line of Topps comics, is Charlie Adlard, who used his interpretation of the character as “an avatar, limited in its capacity to evoke Gillian Anderson but freed to expand upon the representational range of Scully”. “Adlard developed conventions of representing Scully that depicted the character’s physicality and costuming without imitating Anderson’s likeness” [Pillai, 2013: 109], thereby using the examples set by the actors as a framework in which to build upon, without betraying the essence or nature of the character.
In a similar vein to that of the Star Wars franchise, The X-Files has seen revival in both its comic incarnation and in its ‘parent’ medium. With a line of comics from publisher IDW [Harris, 2013 – 2015], continuing the series past its initial cancelation and subsequent film, The X-Files: I Want to Believe [Carter, 2008], The X-Files was able to live on through a medium where it already had a foot-hold. According to The X-Files: Season 10 [Harris, 2013 – 2015] and The X-Files: Season 11 [Harris 2015 – 2016] comic writer, Joe Harris, deciding to continue the series as a comic proves the “awesome crossover appeal and potential this franchise brings to the publishing, and the industry” [Allair, 2015]. Due to the franchise’s cult following, many long time fans who do not read comics have picked the franchise up in the comic book medium, in order to dive back into the series [Allair, 2015]. With the 2016 return of The X-Files to television, the creator Chris Carter wanted to once again tap into the cult fan base, in the same way the comics did, stating “this is for them” [Topel, 2016]. The fan base for the franchise is what has kept the series alive, sustained by both the Topps and IDW comics until its much anticipated television return.
In a contrast to both The X-Files [Carter, 1993 – 2016] and Star Wars [Lucas, 1977], The Matrix [Wachowskis, 1999] franchise provides a stark warning as to what can happen when the core objective of transmedia storytelling is ignored: choice. A transmedia franchise must “offer choice” [Weaver, 2013: 36] to be successful. To discard this concept, is essentially to do damage to the franchise as a whole. Though its use of film, anime, comic books and games, may portray The Matrix franchise as a prime transmedia example, its execution was predicted on the audience having already consumed the previous media in the correct order, “no film franchise has ever made such demands of its consumers” [Jenkins, 2006: 94]. When considering only the sequel films, events and characters are presented with no explanations assuming “we have almost complete mastery over its complex mythology and ever-expanding cast of secondary characters” [Jenkins, 2006: 96], a mistake that is carried over to other related material.
As The Matrix was being released internationally, the Wachowskis planned how a complete universe and story could be told, through multiple media [Oreck, 2003]. Despite the plan to display their universe through many anime, comics, films and video games, its execution “expected its audience to seek out every single piece” [Weaver, 2013: 36], that in order to “understand the complexity of the movie’s Matrix, one needed to purchase additional media” [Proffitt, Tchoi & McAlister, 2007: 246]. In the case of the second film, The Matrix Reloaded [Wachowskis, 2003], there is no explanation as to what the matrix is, why the main characters are important or why the audience should care, before more important details concerning the plot are introduced. Secondary, seemingly one off characters, such as ‘Kid‘, are introduced with no explanation of their significance, other than those given in supplementary material, including Kid’s Story [Watanabe, 2003]. While this would usually be an ideal practice if you are attempting to augment your storytelling world with supplementary material, it is done so often throughout both The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolution [Wachowskis, 2003] that any member of the audience that had not sought out, or was possibly unaware of the supplementary material, was left without numerous incidents and plot points explained. The fault with this execution, is that the creators failed to provide one coherent story in just one medium, “its reliance on continuing plot lines in multiple media forms relegated it to notable failure. It was expectantly transmedia” [Weaver, 2013: 36]. The franchise’s reliance on multiple media to fill in gaps, robbed the audience of the choice to dive in further, forcing them either to give up on the story or to switch to new media completely.
The creators’ choice in regards to how they expand their narrative, heavily reflects their own inspirations and influences. It has been noted several times by the Wachowskis that they drew greatly from anime, such as Akira [Otomo, 1988] and Ghost in the Shell [Oshii, 1995] [Oreck, 2003], as well as several comic books, including Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles [Morrison, 1994 – 2000]. Morrison himself has stated the, “so much of The Matrix is plot by plot, detail by detail, image by image, lifted from Invisibles so there shouldn’t be much controversy” [Epstein, 2005]. With this wealth of inspiration through various media, the directors’ choice to use these to their advantage, becomes a natural evolution to the story. Anime shorts such as The Second Renaissance [Maeda, 2003], which portrays the overthrowing of humanity that leads to the events of the films, and The Final Flight of the Osiris [Jones, 2003], documents the final mission of the Osiris crew as told by the character Nyrobi in The Matrix Revolution. Also comic books such as A Life Less Empty [McKeever, 2003], which uses a new character to contrast the possible life Neo would have led had he chosen the blue pill, and Déjà Vu [Chadwick, 2004], focused on a couple still trapped in the Matrix catching glimpses of the ‘real world’ in their dreams. Despite the volume and talent behind the comics however, they are the least known and distributed of the available media, while also being the franchise’s best case for transmedia in action. The stories told through the comics are centred around background characters and events, providing readers with a connection to the world around the main characters building a greater mythology for the franchise.
Possibly the greatest artefact The Matrix has produced for an example of transmedia done correctly, is the short comic Bits and Pieces of Information [Wachowskis & Darrow, 2003]. Though the comic consists of only eight pages, it requires no previous knowledge of the franchise and provides a look at the catalyst of the franchise’s history. The events shown are presented as everyday occurrences, such as ‘B116ER’s achievement as the first robot to kill a human, that requires no knowledge of what came before or after but is reflected in the story of The Second Renaissance and become the originating plot point for The Matrix films. “The comic introduced the pivotal figure of B116ER”, “The Second Renaissance builds upon Bits and Pieces of Information” [Jenkins, 2006: 118] which both form the backbone for the first film. Though the manner in which The Matrix attempted transmedia storytelling lacked an understanding of choice, it is “a flawed experiment, an interesting failure, but that its flaws did not detract from the significance of what it tried to accomplish” [Jenkins, 2006: 97].
Transmedia storytelling has been used by numerous franchises to both a phenomenal degree of success and notable failure, with The X-Files, Star Wars, and The Matrix barely scratching the surface of what is available to explore. The film and television industries embrace of the comic book medium has allowed both industries the opportunity to expand their narrative in a way neither format could achieve on their own, additionally prolonging a franchise’s life span by keeping the narrative alive, “giving it an afterlife it would never have had otherwise” [Hutcheon, 2006: 176]. The comic book format, due to its versatility can and has been used not only to expand an ongoing narrative, but to reawaken long dormant properties and reintroduce them to their original audience, and a wider demographic that may have missed the initial release, with a lower cost of entry and less risk then a multi-million dollar film or television project. “Unlike film, television and games”, comics give the “possibility for a creator from outside the mainstream industry to reach a mass audience” [Dowd, 2015: 204], and for creators to experiment with the narrative alongside the audience feedback, providing a more open dialogue between, creators, producers and fans. With this free exchange, the audience can feel as though they are taking a far more active role as well as that of an explorer, able to navigate as they wish and influence the course set before them. The future of transmedia storytelling, not only on the Imax enabled surround sound screens but also in the four colour pages, will be forged as a collaboration between fan and producer, [Weaver, 2013: 45] creating broad new horizons towards which the audience can choose to set sail.
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