Laughing in the face of the Original: [Academic Paper]

Does the intertextual nature of the parody genre effect how we see an original text?


This essay explore the nature of Intertextuality and its use in the parody genre. Exploring subjects such as Semiotics, Genre Subversion, Ghost Texts and Postmodernism. While drawing on a large pool of artefacts, this essay focuses primarily on the works of Mel Brooks, specifically the films Young Frankenstein [Brooks. 1987], Blazing Saddles [Brooks. 1974] and Spaceballs [Brooks. 1974].


In the study of semiotics, the practice of deriving meaning from signs and signifiers [Chandler. 2014], there exists the study of intertextuality. While the study of semiotics has been defined by Umberto Eco as being “concerned with everything that can be taken as a sign” [Eco. 1976:7], and hence, deriving meaning from those signs based on cultural significance and context, then intertextuality is the practice of such signs and signifiers, drawing on specific cultural materials, such as films, books, television and other media. While intertextuality can be seen in multiple examples, the practice of recognising such references can vary depending on the readers own frame of reference. Bazerman notes that intertextual references are “most easily recognizable when the textual borrowings involve some distance in time, space, culture, or institution. Phrases that are common and unremarkable in sports such are ‘stepping up to the plate’ – just part of the ordinary way of talking that everyone shares – become a bit remarkable when they start appearing in political contexts, such as when congressperson talks about courage to take a stand on an issue by talking about ‘stepping up to the plate’.” [Bazerman. 2004:89] Bazerman uses this as an example to how a common baseball metaphor can become part of the public lexicon, even outside of the realm of sports.
The term intertextuality, was introduced by Julia Kristeva, in her 1966 essay, Words, Dialogue and Novel [Kristeva. 1980], and later expounded upon in her 1966-67 essay, The Bounded Text [Kristeva. 1980]. The original definition Kristeva proposed, described it as the “initiated [proposal of a] text as a dynamic site in which relational processes and practices are [focuses] of analysis instead of static structures and products” [Friedman. 1991:147]. Since introducing this concept, the idea and the notion of intertextuality has been expounded upon by theorists such as, Harold Bloom [Bloom. 1973], Susan Friedman [Friedman. 1991], and Henry Jenkins. In 1977, Roland Barthes introduced the idea of ‘The Death of the Author’ [Barthes. 1977], a notion that is often paired, and discussed alongside intertextuality. Barthes discusses whether or not the authors opinion and intention in regards to their own work should be taken into account, once the work is published. In regards to intertextuality, this provides an interesting notion. When reconstituting an author’s work, for example, into the guise of a comedy, would the initial author agree with the new outcome?

The use of intertextuality, can be defined by three key categories, obligatory, optional, and accidental [Miola. 2004]. Obligatory intertextuality involves the use of deliberate referencing, the writer will invoke texts of consciously, and the reader will usually require some form of knowledge towards the original texts, in order to appreciate the new material created [Fitzsimmons. 2013]. Examples of this can frequently be seen in The Simpsons Halloween Specials [Groening, Brooks & Simon. 1989 – Present]. Unlike standard episodes of The Simpsons which may incorporate intertextuality into their stories, most stories told in the annual ‘Treehouse of Horror’ [Archer, Moore, & Silverman. 1990] episodes are parodies or retellings of existing horror properties. For example, the first story of Treehouse of Horror V [Reardon. 1994], entitled The Shinning, is a recreation of the Stanley Kubrick 1980 horror film, The Shining [Kubrick. 1980]. Replacing Jack Nicholson’s character, Jack Torrance, with Homer Simpson, Shelley Duvall, with Marge, and Danny with Bart. Optional Intertextuality, most notably refers to intertextual references that are none-essential to the story being told, but are used “to pay homage to the ‘original’ writers, or to reward those who have read the [text]. However, the reading of this [text] is not necessary to the understanding of the [new text]” [Ivanic. 1998]. Finally, Accidental Intertextuality, involves the unconscious referencing of texts in an author’s work [Fitzsimmons. 2013].This usually occurs when the writer makes no clear intention of making a specific intertextual reference, though connections could still be made by readers who may recognise subtle references [Wohrle. 2012].
A Genre that relies implicitly on intertextuality, is that of the Parody genre. The genre is defined by its use of Obligatory intertextuality, using specific subjects, genres, themes, or tropes, and using them as a source of comedy. When discussing parody in there book Film Art: An Introduction [Bordwell & Thompson. 2003], Bordwell and Thompson use the genre of horror to explore the purpose and popularity of parody. “Horror classics have been remade (Cat People [Tourneur. 1942], Dracula [Browning. 1931]), and the genre conventions have been parodied (Young Frankenstein [Brooks. 1974], Beetlejuice [Burton. 1988]).” “By the late 1990s, horror-film conventions had become so familiar that parodies also became popular: Men in Black [Sonnenfeld. 1997], Men in Black II [Sonnenfeld. 2002], and the Scary Movie [Wayans. 2000] and Scream [Craven. 1996] series. Whatever the causes, filmmakers working in horror films have maintained that dynamic of conventions and innovation that is basic to every film genre” [Bordwell & Thompson. 2003:123]. The genre of parody is nothing new, elements can be found dating “back to Aristophanes (448 – 380? B.C.) spoofing the writing styles of Aeschylus Euripides in the Frogs, or Cervantes’ undercutting of the medieval romance genre in his early seventeenth-century novel Don Quixote, whose title character argumentatively is Western culture’s greatest comic figure” [Gehring. 1999:01]. The parody genre, as it appears in film, is of no surprise, the evolution of multiple other genres on screen, for example the horror or action genre, has allowed the parody genre to evolve alongside it. Notably, the works of Mel Brooks can be seen as prime examples. Including Young Frankenstein [Brooks. 1974], playing on the themes and events of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein [Shelley. 1818], Spaceballs [Brooks. 1987], parodying the Star Wars [Lucas. 1977] franchise, and Blazing Saddles [Brooks. 1974], subverting tropes and expectations of the Western genre.

Young Frankenstein and ‘The Death of the Author’:

With parody, and the use of intertextuality, it is worth wondering of the ‘original’ author’s reaction to their work being parodied. In the case of Frankenstein [Shelley. 1818], famously parodied in Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein [Brooks. 1974], a property intended to terrify its readers. Originally created by Shelley as part of a friendly writing competition between herself, Percy Shelley, Lord Byron, and John Polidori, in an attempt to create the best horror story they could [Whitebloom. 2011] [Baldalamenti. 2006], Brooks transforms the work of horror, in to a dark comedy starring famed comedian Gene Wilder. Brooks takes the notion of man becoming god, and realising the sheer horror of his mistake, and takes it apart piece by piece, for the comedic entertainment of the masses. It is far to say that Shelley herself is not guilty of intertextuality herself, the evidence to which is in the full title to her novel, Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus [Shelley. 1818]. Shelley story evokes the myth of Prometheus, and the poem Paradise Lost [Milton. 1667], “Shelley uses the myth of Prometheus and Paradise Lost in an ambivalent mode; they maintain their original meaning, but, at the same time, they acquire a specific feature that suits the novel better. For instance, the archetypical figure of Prometheus is represented by a mortal man, which changes significantly the outcome of the story. Besides, the figure of a divine creator, Prometheus in the Greek mythology or God in Milton’s epic, is transformed into a fallible mortal man in the novel” [Alves. 2014:132].

Barthes theory of ‘The Death of the Author’, applies, in this case, not only to Shelley’s work, but the myth of Prometheus and Milton’s epic poem. As Friedman states, in here essay Weaving: Intertextuality and the (Re)Birth of the Author [Friedman. 1991], “The ‘author’ dies in Barthes’s text in more ways than one. Like Kristeva, he sees the ‘author’ or ‘writer’ vanishing into the play of signifiers on the page” [Friedman. 1991:148]. She goes on to add, “the ‘death of the author’ – and with ‘him’, the death of origin, meaning, and referentiality – make possible the transformation of ‘the work’ into the ‘Text’ and the ‘Text’ as a performative state of engagement with other texts: in short, intertextuality” [Friedman. 1991:149]. With this in mind, it is useful to think of each of the texts being parodied, or referenced, as being similar to the multiple parts used to create Frankenstein’s monster. Each text dead, having been freed from their original authors control at publication, and now free to be stitched and rearranged by new authors, or literary Dr. Frankenstein’s. As Barthes states “the birth of the reader must be ransomed by the death of the author” [Barthes. 1977: 06], in regards to intertextuality, this plays a large part when arguing authorial intent, as the author’s work could be quoted or referenced in a manner in which the original author finds offensive, or against their wishes. In regards to parody, this may put the new text in binary opposition with the original, creating a juxtaposition within itself. With Young Frankenstein [Brooks. 1974], a horror story is being transferred to a comedy, and while the question may be asked as to whether or not Shelley would want her creation being seen that way, the same could be asked if Milton would have been pleased with his epic poem being used as fuel for one of literatures most enduring monsters.

The key principle in Barthes’ theory, is that once a text has been published, and people outside of the author are able to read, view and absorb the text, then the authors role is finished, the author is essentially dead in the eyes of the text, and this allows for the birth of the readers. With the death of the author, it is reasonable to assume, that the intent of the author is no longer valid, that it is now in the hands of the reader, and possible new authors, to breathe new life into the text, and interpret it in the manner they see fit. In this case, intertextuality is the practice of readers becoming surrogate authors to those text, re-birthing them into the world, dying as authors themselves, and giving birth to new readers in the process. As Friedman puts it, “We have come full circle, back to the fabric of a text, this time an intertextual web of critical discourses that are endlessly woven and re-woven. Central to this (intertextual) re-weaving of the critical discourses of intertextuality is the reinsertion of the author, along with some of the biographical and historical methodologies of influence studies, back into the pattern of the fabric” [Friedman. 1991:173].

Obligatory, Optional, Ghost Texts and Spaceballs:

Much like Young Frankenstein [Brooks. 1974], Spaceballs [Brooks. 1987] is known, simply, as a parody of the Star Wars franchise, as it stood then. Namely the original trilogy, Star Wars Episode IV – A New Hope [Lucas. 1977], Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back [Kershner. 1980], and Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi [Marquand. 1983]. Spaceballs was far from the first Star Wars parody, as chronicled in Chris Taylor’s How Star Wars Conquered the Universe [Taylor. 2014]. “Like Star Wars itself, the parodies seemed to pretty much die out after the original trilogy ended in 1983. The one notable exception – Mel Brooks’s feature-length Spaceballs in 1987 – seemed outdated on arrival” [Taylor. 2014: 135]. Taylor goes on to quote noted film critic, Roger Ebert’s original 1987 review, “The strangest thing about ‘Spaceballs’ is that it should have been made several years ago, before our appetite for ‘Star Wars’ satires had been completely exhausted. [….] With ‘Spaceballs’, he has made the kind of movie that didn’t really need a Mel Brooks. In bits and pieces, one way or another, this movie already has been made over the last 10 years by countless other satirists” [Ebert. 1987]. Both Taylor and Ebert point out that a number of jokes and gags are recycled from previous parody attempts, “A handful of the jokes, such as the princess’s hair buns turned out to be ear warmers, arrived directly from Hardware Wars” [Taylor. 2014:136]. Given Spaceballs late addition to the selection of Star Wars parodies, it is possible that Brooks gained a lot of his inspiration not only from his own observation of the original trilogy, but a subconscious, or accidental, use of intertextuality from the previous catalogue of Star Wars parody, such as Hardware Wars [Fosselious. 1978], appearances in Mad Magazine [Kurtzman. 1952 – Present], and The Muppet Show [Henson. 1976 – 81]. These unintentional intertextual references “can be caused by similar cultural, historical, and social circumstances. They can be traced back to common formulations, common motifs, or to quotations of a common source text” [Wohrle, et al. 2012:007].

However, what stands it apart from its contemporaries, is Brooks’s use of ‘Optional Intertextuality’. While the film focuses primarily on the Star Wars franchise as it stood then, the film contains noticeable references to other properties, including Ridley Scott’s 1979, science fiction, horror classic, Alien [Scott. 1979], and the Looney Tunes [Avery, Jones, et al. 1930 – 69] short, One Froggy Evening [Jones. 1955]. While these references are fun and interesting for those aware of the original texts, they provide no additional meaning in regards to parodying the Star Wars franchise. The primary audience, or demographic for Star Wars, at the time of its release, may well be aware of the One Froggy Evening [Jones. 1955] cartoon, but the image of the ‘Chestburster’ breaking through John Hurts’ ribs and lungs, as depicted in Alien [Scott. 1979], is far from a desired companion in the Lucas’s Star Wars Universe. In Brooks’s parody of Star Wars, he allows for the material to be skewed to a slightly more adult audience. In this case, Brooks is implementing his own authority over the texts his is intertextualising into his own work. Brooks choice of including these optional intertextual references, may provide evidence for what some practitioners, namely Gray [Gray. 2006], and Kundu [Kundu. 2008] refer to as ‘Ghost Texts’. The concept of introducing outside references, may give new readers an opportunity to recognise and identify other texts, for Brooks to expand the reach of his new text, by applying references to texts outside of the desired subject, to appeal to a broader demographic. The concept of a ‘ghost text’ as described by Gray in Watching with The Simpsons [Gray. 2006], ghost texts “come from the reader, and from other texts the reader has encountered. Resilient in refusing death, any text that we read can potentially live on forever – ageless as Bond and Batman have proven to be – to ‘haunt’ future texts. Ultimately texts stay with us, alive in our memories” [Gray. 2006:26 – 27]. In an artefact, such as a parody film, what would happen if the film itself was the reference, and someone did not understand or are aware of the reference? By allowing texts such as One Froggy Evening [Jones. 1955], Alien [Scott. 1979], The Wizard of OZ [Fleming. 1939], Chinatown [Polanski. 1974], and even some of Brooks previous work, Brooks is allowing these previous texts to ‘haunt’ Spaceballs alongside Star Wars, to hopefully create a better relationship with the readers, and a broader appeal. Each reader viewing Spaceballs, may have a somewhat different relationship to each of the secondary ghosts, refusing to let these secondary ghosts to die.

Genre Subversion and Blazing Saddles:

In contrast to Brooks other films discussed here, Blazing Saddles [Brooks .1974] does not focus on one singular film as it’s subject, but rather Brooks turns his attention to the entire genre of the Western. The origins and definition of Intertextuality come in to play, as instead of relying on parodies of characters or specific plot point, the signs and signifiers of a Western must be examined. The semiotics of a genre. In the case of Blazing Saddles, multiple tropes and clichés of the Western genre are addressed, as well as signifying character traits. The likes of a quick draw, cool and collective gunslinger, often portrayed in the vain of Clint Eastwood in The Man with No Name trilogy (A Fistful of Dollars [Leone. 1964], A Few Dollars More [Leone. 1965], and The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly [Leone. 1966]) or Robert Redford’s Sundance in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid [Hill. 1969], replaced with Gene Wilder’s drunk and comedic ‘Waco Kid’ or simply, Jim. The high ranking member of society, eager to get his hands on land, as seen in A Minute to Pray, a Second to Die (originally titled Un Minuto Per Pregare, Un Istante Per Morire) [Giraldi. 1968], now portrayed as the somewhat inept, sex crazed Governor William J. Le Petomane, played by Brooks himself. By using the signs, signifiers and iconography associated with the Western genre, Brooks can draw upon that wealth, to indicate to the audience what should be expected, to then subvert it in front of them, on screen. As Nick Lacey describes in their book, Narrative and Genre: Key Concepts in Media Studies [Lacey. 2000], “Westerns are very particular in their space (the American frontier) and time (1865 – 90). The Western deals with the conflict between the wilderness and civilisation (a binary opposition), a conflict that occurred on the frontier between the end of the Civil War until both sides of North America were ‘unified’ by the trans-continental railway.” […] “We associate guns and decrepit city streets with the crime genre; iconography in the Western is very exact, possibly because of its very focused time period: the ten-gallon hat, the six-gun, horses, tumbleweed and so on. Iconographic sounds refer both to diegetic and non-diegetic signs. In crime texts, the sound of a police car’s siren (diegetic) is usually endemic just as a Western’s theme music (non-diegetic) is likely to have lush strings, staccato brass and a fast rhythm emphasised by the brass drum” [Lacey. 2000:138].

One convention that Brooks noticeably brings to the forefront, is how the Western genre approaches racism. Given the time period the Western genre places itself into, at the end of the Civil War, “the Indians represent black people who were not considered to be truly American by the racist, southern whites who were opposing the ‘Brown verdict’” [Lacey. 2000:119]. In an example, we can take John Ford’s The Searchers [Ford. 1956], “John Wayne plays an anti-heroic ex-Confederate searching for his teenage niece who has been kidnapped by Indians. When he realizes she has been taken as an Indian wife, he continues searching for her not to rescue her, but to kill her, because she is now racially polluted” [Jacobs. 2015]. “Edwards [Wayne] is a racist and cannot bear the thought of his kin having sex with an Indian who has adopted her as one of his own race” [Lacey. 2000:119]. Brooks plays on this, by not only placing the racist tones to the forefront, but making a black man the sheriff. Something acknowledged at great lengths within the film, by the townspeople, and especially by Bart himself (the newly assigned sheriff, and former slave) when he takes himself hostage, acting as both the town sheriff as authority figure, and black savage in the eyes of the townsfolk. By the films end, the townsfolk welcome him as sheriff, despite his race, subverting the genre expectations in this regard. The films frequent use of derogatory terms can also be seen as a way in which the director draws explicit attention to the nature of racism. It is interesting to note, that the Native American’s portrayed in the film, often used as the stand-ins in Westerns for African American, are seen as wise and sage like, with Mel Brooks himself playing their chief.


Through the films Spaceballs [Brooks. 1974], Blazing Saddles [Brooks. 1974], and Young Frankenstein [Brooks. 1987], Brooks uses a variety of intertextual techniques in order to implement the parody genre. Through exploring the techniques used and given the nature of the genre, it becomes more than apparent that intertextuality is a key component when constructing a work in the parody mould. In order to construct a narrative that brings to mind specific connotations of an original source, intertextuality is essential. “Because a realist text cannot formally be verified by reference to the ‘real world’, realism must be derived from the interaction between the text’s own internal logic and its reference to other texts, its intertextuality” [Lacey. 2000: 72]. The reliance on these earlier texts, could be seen as a form of postmodernism, the original texts, the modern entertainment, being reformed and shaped into a new artefact, a postmodern work. “Because postmodernism does not deal with the way texts, or any artefacts, refer to reality, postmodern texts can only deal in surfaces. So because we are, for example, strongly influenced by branding when making buying choices, the label becomes more important than the product and the packaging more important than the contents. In media texts this can manifest itself as intertextuality, where texts make meaning through reference to other texts. Take the Cape Feare [Moore. 1993] episode of The Simpsons [Groaning. 1989- Present]: in one short extract, students studying the programme picked out references to: Quentin Tarantino (surf music on Bart’s radio); Edward Scissorhands [Burton. 1990] and Nightmare on Elm Street [Craven. 1984] (Flanders’ trimming and his ‘gloves’); prison movies (Sideshow Bob and his Cellmate); Taxi Driver [Scorsese. 1976] (Sideshow Bob talking to himself in the mirror); Night of the Hunter [Laughton. 1955] (Bob has ‘hate’ written on his knuckles). When students were asked what all this meant, the response was (rightly) one of silence. Postmodernism is not about content, it is only concerned with its own eclecticism” [Lacey. 2000:94]. By parodying an original source, through the use of intertextuality, the original is transformed. It becomes separated from its original authorial intent, and is reborn to another, repeated at infinitum, as each author dies, giving birth to new readers, the original notions and inspirations of a text, become the intertextual ingredients of new, postmodern works.


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Film Bibliography:

  • A Fistful of Dollars, (1964) Film. Directed by Sergio Leone. [Blu-Ray]Constantin Film Produktion. Italy.
  • Alien. (1979) Film. Directed by Ridley Scott. [Blu-Ray] Twentieth Century Fox Productions: UK.
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  • A Nightmare on Elm Street. (1984) Film. Directed by Wes Craven. [Blu-Ray]New Line Cinema: USA.
  • Beetlejuice (1988) Film. Directed by Tim Burton. [Blu-Ray] Geffen Company: USA.
  • Blazing Saddles (1974) Film. Directed by Mel Brooks. [Blu-Ray] Warner Bros Productions: US.
  • Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. (1969) Film. Directed by George Roy Hill. [Blu-Ray] Twentieth Century Fox Production: USA.
  • Cat People (1942) Film. Directed by Jacques Tourneur. [Blu-Ray] RKO Radio Pictures: USA.
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  • Dracula (1931) Film. Directed by Tod Browning. [Blu-ray] Universal Pictures: USA.
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Cinema Reels, and Four Colour Panels [Academic paper]

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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