New article on fan comics and the everyday

Hi folks,

I’d like to draw your attention to an article I wrote that was recently published as part of the Multimodality of Comics in Everyday Life cluster on the Media Commons site.  The piece is called Fan Comics: Comics as Fan Sense-Making in the Everyday, and talks about how fans draw upon the everyday to create context for the comics they draw; and about how they create comics to make sense of their everyday experiences as a fan.

Special thanks goes to Jeanne and LevyRasputin for talking to me about their work, and kindly letting me reproduce their wonderful artwork.

And please do take the time to read some of the most excellent articles by my fellow scholars on comics and the everyday. 🙂

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The Drowned Man – A Review (from an LIS perspective) – Part II

Continued from Part I.

Part Two: The Drowned Man as a participatory culture.

Further to my previous discussion of The Drowned Man as a universe encapsulating its own internal logic and narrative structure, it is perhaps unsurprising that some members of the ‘audience’ choose to take that universe and give it a life of its own in the ‘real world’.

Immersion, is after all, is “the complete involvement in some activity or interest” (Miriam-Webster, 2013).  Why should immersion take place only in or at the point of initial engagement?  Why should it not follow us into our everyday lives (and thus extend and perhaps complete that sense of involvement into what might be called ‘total immersion’)?

For some who participate in The Drowned Man experience, the original site of immersion is not enough.  They wish to extend this sense of total engagement outside of that site and create an extended sense of immersion in their everyday lives.

In fact, the more I think about it, the more I believe that that is all fans are doing – extending the sense of immersion in a particular text, narrative or cultural artefact into the ‘real world’.

I’m not sure whether followers of The Drowned Man would call themselves fans, but there are some points of intersection with what I will call fans of popular culture.  Not the least of which is the object of their fannish activities, which is the performance itself.  The Drowned Man remediates and appropriates the narrative and cultural language of other media that attracts fan cohesion, participation and behaviour.  Its visual and textual structure harkens to other forms of entertainment, most notably film, television and the videogame, which marry images (in particular motion pictures), narrative, and sensations of immediacy.  It is also related to other textual (though perhaps less immediate) forms (both analogue or digital), such as books, comics, plays, musicals, cartoons, concerts and other narrative-driven, immersive or storytelling devices.  Such qualities invite an audience to immerse themselves in an alternate world or universe, or to project ourselves (or, indeed, a narrative) onto that world.  In so doing it also invites us to immerse ourselves fully outside the point of initial contact.  Those passionate enough about a text will seek extended immersion through the further remediation of the source text; through the perceived improvement of that text; through networking with other fans/remediators; and through the building of social/cultural/knowledge capital via such networks.

In short – cultural texts, artefacts or phenomena such as The Drowned Man (or The Matrix, Lord of the Rings, X-Men, Les Miserables, The Simpsons, Lost, One Direction, to name but a very few) invite an audience; and through remediation, the audience seeks in some way to become a performer of that text.

As Daniel Cavicchi (2008) explains:

I tend to think of it [fandom] as a degree of audiencing, a realm of marked cultural participation that is always relative to, and defined against “normal” or unmarked cultural participation […] [I]nstances of audiencing has mostly to do with the commodification of culture, which depends on a radical – and sometimes playfully manipulative – reworking of the relationships between performer and audience.

In this and the next part of the review, I’d like to focus on the ‘fannish’ activities of followers of The Drowned Man – on the building of their community, their commodification/remediation of The Drowned Man text, and the recasting of themselves as performers within that cultural text.

A small disclaimer: as a relative outsider to the community (or someone who has one foot in the proverbial door), it was left to my friend to open my eyes to its activities and behaviours – I cannot claim to accurately represent The Drowned Man fan community or any of its individual members.  My thoughts are based solely on my own experiences of the genre (with a little help from my friend); and on what I have gleaned from the online fan groups available on the Web.

The Knowledge Gatekeepers

One of the great things about participatory culture is that there is no gatekeeper.

Everyone owns a little piece of knowledge that they can share if they so wish.

The Drowned Man is vast in scale – so vast, in fact, and so chock full of cultural references that it is well nigh impossible to unravel or document them all as a single individual.  One stands a much better chance of comprehending the whole if one pools resources, knowledge and information.  It’s the reason why sites like Wikipedia work so well.  It’s because no one single person holds the keys to all the knowledge contained therein.  It’s because everyone holds a key and can throw the door open onto their own insights and expertise.

The first piece of documentation all audience members are handed before going into the performance – a summary of the two main storylines. Image courtesy of Mild Concern.

There are a couple of digital Drowned Man communities that I am aware of on Facebook.  One of them is a closed group (though is by no means stringent about who they let in), which is gradually aggregating information about the production.  The Drowned Man Content Discussion Group is a prime example of a participatory culture, as it acts as a hub for people to exchange thoughts, ideas and knowledge on the object of their interest; it is also a place to hang out; and it also a growing archive of material related to that object of interest.

For example, looking into their Files section, you’ll find cast lists; cast galleries; maps of the set; soundtrack playlists; and so-called ‘cheat sheets’.  There are also scans of documents from the set that aid in fan’s world-building activities, and shed light on the world itself.

Playlists can also be found on YouTube and Spotify, depending on your preference; and then there are tumblr blogs that share recaps of individual shows, and the thoughts and reactions of ‘audience’ members.  Again, because experiences of the show are very subjective there are intersections in fan narratives of the text, but also wildly divergent documentations of those experiences.  It is important to note that fans do not only put out their own views on the production; they also take the time to read and remark on other people’s observations.  This can lead to the serendipitous discovery of many aspects of the show that were previously hidden.  It can also lead to connections between participants who share common opinions, interests, or attachments to certain characters.  As yet, however, there does not seem to be a cohesive, centralised fan community for The Drowned Man.  This may be because the community is still in the nascent stage; it may also be because the fandom itself is relatively ‘niche’.  The Temple Studios tumblr blog has attempted to draw together a resource of online sites about The Drowned Man, but it is difficult to say how comprehensive or current this list actually is.

Another factor which may also be affecting cohesion of the TDM fan community is the fact that sharing information about your experiences appears to be highly contentious.  The Drowned Man Content Discussion Group qualifies itself by adding a “Contains SPOILERS” warning to its title, warding off those who might not want their experience of the show contaminated.  Some amateur reviews of the production have been marked with the spoiler warning; or have been encouraged by other fans (whether politely or not-so-politely) to carry a spoiler warning.  The visceral nature of the show, and its hyper-stylised, highly-symbolised themes, in turn invite visceral reactions to the show and its characters.  Consequently, many audience members invest themselves emotionally in The Drowned Man, and thus develop a protective relationship with it.  Other members may find a thrill in uncovering one of the show’s many mysteries and having ownership of that knowledge.  In sharing that knowledge they are able to develop their own knowledge/social/cultural capital, and because of this many feel the need to share what may be considered spoilers in order capitalise on that knowledge and/or add to the community as a whole.  This tension between the potential spoiler and the anti-spoiler fans is certainly apparent in the TDM community, and is testament to the high emotional investment of its members in the world of Temple Studios.

It is interesting, then, to compare the TDM fan community with other, spoiler-based groups such as the Survivor fans studied by Henry Jenkins in Convergence Culture (2006).  With the Survivor fans, the legitimacy and veracity of those fans who apparently knew too much was always questioned.  Can the information be relied on?  What is the ulterior motive of the person who provided the information?  Are the rumours true, or are they misinformation?

With fans of TDM, however, veracity appears always to be assumed in the quest to unravel a mystery to which there are no YES or NO answers, no right or wrong, no winner or loser.  Instead the questions are – Do I want to know this piece of information?  Is this going to ruin my experience?  Is it simply too much information?  This is similar to the conundrum faced by fans in many fandoms, although TDM fans can also add another dimension to that list of questions.  Namely: Will this ruin the projected relationship I can build with a character?  And will it ruin the projected relationship I can build with the story itself (bearing in mind that the story is, essentially, fluid, non-linear, discontinuous, and malleable to the imprint of audience members)?

The TDM community treads a precarious line between knowledge as potential ally in fan world-building, and as potential destroyer of the world they have already built for (and by) the production itself.

Knowledge of the text makes TDM fans owners and performers of the text – but how one chooses to perform the text may take on a wide variety of forms.

There are those who perform at the initial site of engagement, as potential actors and agents on the set.

There are those who act as information brokers and resource builders within the fan community.

Some perform the text through documenting and reliving their experience of it.

Others perform it via creative re-interpretation in a variety of different media.

Continued in Part III

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Announcing… My first ‘proper’ publication

Many thanks to the fantastic folks at The Comics Grid for reading, accepting and publishing my book review of The Adoring Audience.

For those interested in fan studies who haven’t read the book already, it is a recommended read.  I suppose I can’t ‘highly’ recommend it, as it’s about 20 years out-of-date.  But as a grounding in fan behaviour it is still entirely relevant, and is wide-ranging in its scope.  Not to mention which, it is one of the seminal fan studies text, so I suppose I should tout it as required reading, if that is your field of study, and particularly if you are coming at fan studies from a point of total ignorance.

Anyway, please do read the review if you’re interested, and I welcome any comments or thoughts you might have on the book.  And please do check out The Comics Grid if you’re interested in comics scholarship.

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The fascinating world of fan movies

Maybe I’m being optimistic when I say that most fans have heard of fanart and fanfiction.  At the very least if you put in a Google search with these terms, you’ll get many, many results (not all strictly benign).  Some of the sites turned up by such a search are well-structured, well-presented, well-funded and well-known.  (Take WattPad and deviantART, for example).  Both fanfiction and fanart have a large and well-established digital following; both are easy points of access for creators and consumers alike – there are few barriers to producing fanfic or -art, few hurdles to jump through in order to get exposure to a wide audience, and (thanks to the many great repositories available on the internet) very few hassles for the consumer searching for something they’re interested in.

But what about fanmovies or -films?

The bar is set rather higher for fanfilms because of production costs and perceived low returns.  Nevertheless fanfilms appear to run the gamut from good to bad to worse in the quality stakes.  Taking a little stroll through fanfilms.net, most of what one tends to find are the creative endeavours of a small group of friends or family, put together over a weekend.  Others are of higher quality, with decent acting and a good appreciation of cinematography off-setting the low (or non-existent) production costs.  And a few are surprisingly high quality.

My first brush with fanmovies was The Bentley Bros.  A small group comprising four brothers and their friends, their initial foray into filmmaking was with the Resident Evil franchise.  Whilst the equipment available to these amateur filmmakers was originally basic, I was surprised at the solid scripting, great editing, depth of vision and great comic-timing displayed by what were essentially kids.

Fast forward a few years and I got round to watching my next fanfilm – the rather aptly-named Metal Gear Solid: Philanthropy (based on the series of games by Hideo Kojima for Konami).  Even if you have no interest in Metal Gear or even in fanfilms, I highly recommend watching at least a few minutes of this fan-made movie, just as an example of what produsers and participatory culture can achieve. Metal Gear Solid: Philanthropy started out as a no-budget project by Hive Division, a group of Italian film students.  Yet the end-product is a high quality piece of cinema, complete with soaring soundtrack and state-of-the-art special effects.  Testimony to the impressive achievement of its creators is the fact that the project stalled several times, yet, through the passion and dedication of the filmmakers it finally made it to general (online) release in 2009.

What is doubly amazing about MGS:P is the fact that the creator of the franchise, Hideo Kojima, endorsed it.  To quote him through the group’s Facebook page:

“[…] It’s awesome. I felt like crying for their love towards Metal Gear. It’s also a well made movie. I can’t wait to see next part.”

In fact, MGS:P was so celebrated that it got enough encouragement (and funding) for a second installment.  One wonders if a Western production would get the same kind of endorsement from intellectual property rights holders.

That isn’t to say that it’s plain-sailing for everyone who wants to start up their own fan movie or mini-series based on Far Eastern franchises.  When Square Enix got wind of a planned kickstarter for a fan-made series based on Final Fantasy VII, they quickly squashed it.  But considering stories like this, it’s impressive what actually does get through.  Some even get specific permission from the rights holders to use their intellectual property.  A case in point – earlier on this year Japanese games giant, CAPCOM, granted a group of fans the rights to film their fanmovie based on the Street Fighter franchise, after the trailer became something of a hit on YouTube.

Then there are projects like Castlevania: Hymn of Blood, which attract actors such as Michael Dorn and Marina Sirtis of Star Trek: TNG fame:

Increasingly, getting into the whole fanfilm business is likely to give you substantial returns (and not just in social capital) if you manage to hit the right beats.  Last year, News Corp’s IGN – which has long been an aggregator of fan news and information, as well as user-generated content – launched their IGN START YouTube channel, which aims to cater to the “neglected” videogaming demographic.  Several of their long-running series (including Castlevania: Hymn of Blood) and featured shorts are the creations of fan produsers who are working on little to no budgets and a lot of passion for their chosen fandom.  Examples from their channel include Y: The Last Man and Splinter Cell.

So what’s the reason for me writing all this?

Really it’s just to make the point that now appears to be a good time to be a produser.  User-generated content is contributing to (and not merely remediating) pop culture, and it’s getting noticed too.  Make your own fanmovie, and you might just get a spot on IGN START or Machinima too.  Good luck (and let me know if you make it).

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Yes, I’m going to talk about it. Fanfiction.

Whilst mulling over what to write for my first blog post, I got to thinking about one of my favourite guilty pleasures – fanfiction.  The other day I was lucky enough to have a chat with Michel Hockx (@mhockx), lecturer and director of the China Institute at SOAS, about his research into Chinese cyberliterature; I was doubly lucky to have had a sneak peak at the new book he’s writing on the subject.  The topic is fascinating because of the casualness and acceptance that Far Eastern markets appear to have towards these types of amateur, remediation-based activities.

In the West, there is still something of a ‘cult of the professional’: a finely delineated line between the expert and the amateur.  Professional writers are put on pedestals; fanfiction writers are perceived as emotionally arrested geeks who probably still live in their parents’ basements.  That isn’t to say that there isn’t a LOT of bad fanfiction out there: trawl through FanFiction.net (the largest fanfiction site in the world), and the odds are that 90% of what you read will be, ahem, unrefined drivel.  But there are gems in there.  You just have to know where to look (and have infinite patience).

In the Far East, fandom is not so much celebrated as merely a way of life.  In particular I’m thinking of Japan when I say this.  Take Mandarake, a chain of Japanese stores that sell anime and manga related products.  Each store has a huge section dedicated to doujinshi, comics written and drawn by fans (or sometimes a ‘circle’ of more than one fan) about their favourite characters.  And many if not most of these amateur publications are of an excellent, dare I say professional, quality.  What then is the real distinction between the expert and the amateur in such cases?

Doujinshi, Japanese fan-made comics. Photo by Danny Choo.

And then take China.  Michel Hockx pointed out a fascinating site to me, called Qidian.  Qidian features stories written by amateurs in a variety of genres, including fanfiction.  Sites like Qidian are far more sophisticated than anything you might find in the West.  Compare with FanFiction.net – Qidian offers downloadable content for mobile devices via apps, professional style ‘book covers’, and even pay-per-word reading models for some stories.  Some stories even make the jump into being published in special ‘web literature’ sections of Chinese bookstores. (Admittedly, Western sites like Wattpad are increasingly taking on the Qidian-style model; but I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for the stories featured on amateur sites to find their way onto the shelves of actual bookshops).

‘Network literature’ or web literature on sale in a Chinese bookshop. Picture by the Beijing Review.

Several years back, a friend of my sister’s, reafre, who’s from Thailand, sent my sister a present.  It was a lovely book, with a textured cover, beautiful font, and gorgeous illustrations.  It was in Thai, and I couldn’t understand a word of it.  But I could tell what the book was about from the illustrations reafre had drawn for the book.  They were depictions of Viggo Mortensen and Orlando Bloom as Aragorn and Legolas from the Peter Jackson Lord of the Rings movie.  The book was slash fanfiction – in other words fanfiction featuring same sex relationships.  I was stunned (and just a little bit jealous) that reafre was able to create such a beautifully presented and polished product – that it was even possible to do so.  It was the first time I’d encountered fanfiction as a product to be proud of, rather than something to be hidden away in the maze of mediocrity and relative anonymity that is FanFiction.net.

Don’t get me wrong.  Since Fifty Shades of Grey, the West is opening up to the possibilities of fanfiction as a legitimate literary genre.  Take Kindle Worlds for instance (whose motto is ‘New stories inspired by books, shows, movies, comics, music, and games people love.’).  Here amateurs are given free rein to write about their fandoms and publish them as Kindle e-books, thus glossing their work with a sheen of professional respectability (book covers, royalties, etc.)  The only downside is, your fanfiction can only be about the ‘worlds’ (or fandoms) that have been licensed by Amazon.  So only a handful of fans get the privilege of being ‘published’ in a more traditional sense.

Kindle Worlds. Fanfic for profit.

According to von Veh (2013) in her article, Kindle Worlds: Bringing Fanfiction Into Line But Not Online?, this is a sterile venture that fails to recreate the interactive and participatory cultures that typify other amateur writing platforms such as FanFiction.net and LiveJournal.  On these sites, there is a strong sense of community – the ability to comment, rate, critique and even affect the outcome of storylines; and there is the opportunity to make friends with other like-minded fans, be they writers or readers.   These are all traits that are preserved in sites like Qidian (which, like Kindle Worlds, also make money out of writers’ work), but appear to be absent from the Kindle Worlds platform itself.

Is this a bad thing?  Does the participation factor in fan communities necessarily make for a better product than those offered by a top-down publishing industry?  Does the chance to pool resources, trade hints and tips, provide critiques and work on collaborative projects with other fans, hobbyists and amateurs make any difference when compared to the solo output of a professional or expert, or even the faceless creative team behind the latest corporate endeavour?

I’m not sure.  But I certainly aim to find out.

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