CFP: Making the Marvel Universe

Making the Marvel Universe: Transmedia and the Marvel Comics Brand

Editor: Matt Yockey

What became known as the Marvel Universe in effect began with the publication in 1961of Fantastic Four no. 1, a comic book that redefined the superhero genre with its exploits of a bickering superhero team.  In little more than a year a company that had gone through numerous name changes since it began as Timely Publications in 1939 not only settled on a new one – Marvel Comics – but also embraced a new identity as an iconoclastic “House of Ideas,” overseen by the jocular and familiar editorial presence of Stan Lee and defined by the unique creative vision of artists such as Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko.  Previously in the shadow of DC Comics, the dominant publisher in the industry, by the end of the 1960s Marvel had completely rewritten the rules of what superhero comic books could be.  Not only did the “Marvel Bullpen” produce a new wave of unusually complex superheroes – including Spider-Man, the Incredible Hulk, Doctor Strange, the X-Men, and Iron Man – but they redefined the ways in which comic books were read.  The Marvel Universe was constituted by an overall continuity between titles to an unprecedented degree; cross-over stories evolved into a complex meta-text that incorporated every superhero title the company published.  With Lee as the face of the company, Marvel became not only the leading publisher of superhero comic books but (after a few false starts) eventually optioned its properties into successful blockbuster films, beginning in 2000 with X-Men.  This led to Marvel establishing its own film production company that is currently producing a collection of movies that are the film equivalent of the Marvel Universe.  With comic books no longer the mainstream commodity they once were, Marvel has effectively exploited the transmedia potential of their properties and remains more relevant and more lucrative a business concern than ever before.

This anthology will examine the various ways by which Marvel in effect has become Marvel. Essays can focus on a single character, comic book title, film, television series, writer, artist, director, actor, franchise, or era.  They can also take a more global perspective on a particular way in which the Marvel Universe and/or the Marvel brand function.  Various methodologies are welcomed.  Potential topics include but are not limited to:

  • Authorship
  • Creator’s rights
  • Adaptation
  • Convergence culture and world-making
  • Canon formation
  • Rebooting and retconning
  • “Bad” textsand their place in the Marvel Universe
  • Marvel as “The House of Ideas,” the “Marvel Bullpen,” the “Marvel Method,” and production culture
  • Company-created fan clubs (Merry Marvel Marching Society and FOOM) and/or Marvel fandom in general
  • Stan Lee’s persona
  • Marvel’s claims to “relevance” and the political and social significance of its work
  • Corporate identity: the creation of brand identity and values; the role of the corporation in relation to fans
  • Globalization: the marketing of Marvel and the universalizing of brand values
  • Web-comics and the evolution of reading habits
  • Nostalgia
  • Marketing strategies and aesthetics
  • The DC/Marvel binary
  • Disney’s purchase of Marvel and the shifting identity of the company

Interested authors should submit a proposal of approximately 400-600 words.  Each proposal should clearly state 1) the research question and/or theoretical goals of the essay, 2) the essay’s relationship to the anthology’s core issues, and 3) a potential bibliography.  Please also include a brief CV.  Accepted essays should be approximately 6,000-7,000 words.

Deadline for proposals: October 15, 2013

Please send proposals to: matt.yockey@utoledo.edu

Publication timetable:

  • October 15, 2013 – Deadline for Proposals
  • November 15, 2013 – Notification of Acceptance Decisions
  • March 15, 2014 – Chapter Drafts Due
  • June 15, 2014 – Chapter Revisions Due
  • July 31, 2014 – Final Revisions Due

Acceptance will be contingent on the ability of contributors to meet these deadlines and deliver high-quality work.

Tilt-Shifting Pacific Rim

PACIFIC RIM

Two-thirds of the way through Pacific Rim — just after an epic battle in, around, and ultimately over Hong Kong that’s one of the best-choreographed setpieces of cinematic SF mayhem I have ever witnessed — I took advantage of a lull in the storytelling to run to the restroom. In the air-conditioned chill of the multiplex the lobby with its concession counters and videogames seemed weirdly cramped and claustrophobic, a doll’s-house version of itself I’d entered after accidentally stumbling into the path of a shink-ray, and I realized for the first time that Guillermo del Toro’s movie had done a phenomenological number on me, retuning my senses to the scale of the very, very big and rendering the world outside the theater, by contrast, quaintly toylike.

I suspect that much of PR’s power, not to mention its puppy-dog, puppy-dumb charm, lies in just this scalar play. The cinematography has a way of making you crane your gaze upwards even in shots that don’t feature those lumbering, looming mechas and kaiju. The movie recalls the pleasures of playing with LEGO, model kits, action figures, even plain old Matchbox Cars, taking pieces of the real (or made-up) world and shrinking them down to something you can hold in your hand — and, just as importantly, look up at. As the father of a two-year-old, I often find myself laying on the floor, my eyes situated inches off the carpet and so near the plastic dump trucks, excavators, and fire engines in my son’s fleet that I have to take my glasses off to properly focus on them. At this proximity, toys regain some of their large-scale referent’s visual impact without ever quite giving up their smallness: the effect is a superimposition of slightly dissonant realities, or in the words of my friend Randy (with whom I saw Pacific Rim) a “sized” version of the uncanny valley.

This scalar unheimlich is clearly on the culture’s mind lately, literalized — iconized? — in tilt-shift photography, which takes full-sized scenes and optically transforms them into images that look like dioramas or models. A subset of the larger (no pun intended) practice of miniature faking, tilt-shift updates Walter Benjamin’s concept of the optical unconscious for the networked antheap of contemporary digital and social media, in which nothing remains unconscious (or unspoken or unexplored) for long but instead swims to prominence through an endless churn of collective creation, commentary, and sharing. Within the ramifying viralities of Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Reddit, and 4chan, in which memes boil reality into existence like so much quantum foam, the fusion of lens-perception and human vision — what the formalist Soviet pioneers called the kino-eye — becomes just another Instagram filter:

tilt-shift-photography-1

The giant robots fighting giant monsters in Pacific Rim, of course, are toyetic in a more traditional sense: where tilt-shift turns the world into a miniature, PR uses miniatures to make a world, because that is what cinematic special effects do. The story’s flimsy romance, between Raleigh Beckett (Charlie Hunnam) and Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi) makes more sense when viewed as a symptomatic expression of the national and generic tropes the movie is attempting to marry: the mind-meldly “drift” at the production level fuses traditions of Japanese rubber-monster movies like Gojiru and anime like Neon Genesis Evangelion with a visual-effects infrastructure which, while a global enterprise, draws its guiding spirit (the human essence inside its mechanical body, if you will) from Industrial Light and Magic and the decades of American fantasy and SF filmmaking that led to our current era of brobdingnagian blockbusters.

Pacific Rim succeeds handsomely in channeling those historical and generic traces, paying homage to the late great Ray Harryhausen along the way, but evidently its mission of magnifying 50’s-era monster movies to 21st-century technospectacle was an indulgence of giantizing impulses unsuited to U.S. audiences at least; in its opening weekend, PR was trounced by Grown Ups 2 and Despicable Me 2, comedies offering membership in a franchise where PR could offer only membership in a family. The dismay of fans, who rightly recognize Pacific Rim as among the best of the summer season and likely deserving of a place in the pantheon of revered SF films with long ancillary afterlives, should remind us of other scalar disjunctions in play: for all their power and reach (see: the just-concluded San Diego Comic Con), fans remain a subculture, their beloved visions, no matter how expansive, dwarfed by the relentless output of a mainstream-oriented culture industry.

Starting the Last of Us

thelastofus

The remarkable opening sequence of The Last of Us was ruined for me — at my request, I hasten to add — and as much as it might be in keeping with the game’s ethos of cowing and disempowering its players, I don’t want to visit the same epistemological violence upon readers without warning. So proceed no further if you wish to remain unspoiled!

After a long sojourn in retro tidepools of emulation (via MAME and Nestopia) and the immediate, delimited pleasures of casual gaming (where usual suspects like Bejeweled and Temple Run share playtime with private-feeling discoveries like Alien Zone and Nimble Quest) I’m returning to modern videogaming with a PlayStation 3 — itself on the verge of obsolescence, I suppose, thanks to the imminent PS4. My motivations for acquiring both The Last of Us and hardware to run it on can be traced to an hour or so of gaming at a friend’s place, where, as my two companions watched and kibbitzed, I walked, crouched, and ran TLOU’s protagonist-avatar Joel through a couple of early “encounters” whose purpose seemed to be to teach me the futility of fighting, shooting, or doing anything really besides sneaking around or flat-out running away from danger.

I find TLOU’s strategy of undermining any sense of potency or agency to be one of its most intriguing traits, but I will wait to talk more about that in a future post. For now I simply want to note the clever, evil way in which the game gets its hooks in you. You begin the game playing as Sarah, Joel’s twelve-year-old daughter, and the initial sequence involves piloting her around a darkened house in search of her father. It’s suitably creepy, with Sarah calling out “Dad?” in increasingly panicked tones as, outside the game, you adapt yourself to the basics of movement, camera placement, and manipulating objects in the environment.

The latter is a now-standard method of starting a game in crypto-tutorial mode — apparently sometime within the last ten years instruction manuals ceased to exist. Controllers have become standardized according to their brands, but each videogame deploys its button-and-joystick layout slightly differently, and acclimatizing the player to this scheme in a way that feels natural is every game’s first design challenge, a kind of ludic bootstrapping.

When Joel arrives home in the middle of the night and spirits Sarah off in a pickup truck, TLOU enters another mode, the expository tour, in this case a bone-rattling run through a world in the process of collapsing: police cars screeching by with sirens blaring (and lenses flaring), houses burning, townspeople rioting. Rushed from one apocalyptic setpiece to another, it’s a bit like Disney’s “Small World” ride filtered through Dante’s Inferno. By this point, avatarial focus has been handed off to Joel, but you barely notice it; he’s carrying Sarah in his arms as he runs, so it feels like he, she, and you have merged into a single unit of desperate, hounded motion.

And when it appears that the three of you have finally reached safety, a soldier appears, opens fire, and kills Sarah. Cut to black and the title card: THE LAST OF US.

It’s a great opening, harrowing and emasculating, and by breaking a couple of the basic expectations of storytelling (killing a child) and of gaming (killing an avatar we have grown used to inhabiting), it decenters and disorients the player, readying him or her for what is to come by demonstrating precisely how unready we really are.

It put me in mind of Psycho, which similarly kills off its ostensible protagonist at the end of its first act — though in the 1960 film Marion Crane has had a moral defect established that makes her, in retrospect at least, deserving of punishment in Hitchcock’s sadistic scopic regime. Sarah, by contrast, is an innocent, and as much a cipher as emblems of purity always are. Starting the game with her death is a manipulative but effective gut-punch that can be read both positively and negatively. It was enough to make me take the leap and reengage with contemporary gaming — well, it and a few other things. But more on that later.

 

Fun with your new head

The title of this post is borrowed from a book of short stories by Thomas M. Disch, and it’s doubly appropriate in that an act of borrowing arguably lies at the heart of the latest 3D-printing novelty to catch my eye: a British company called Firebox will take pictures of your own head, turn them into a 3D-printed noggin, and stick it on a superhero body. As readers of this blog probably know, I’m intrigued by desktop-fabrication technologies less for their ability to coin unique inventions (the “rapid prototyping” side of their operations) and more for the interesting wrinkles they introduce to the production and circulation of licensed and branded objects — especially fantasy objects, which are referentially unreal but tightly circumscribed by designs associated with particular franchises. Superhero bodies are among the purest examples of such artifacts, offering immediately recognizable physiologies and costumes such as Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman; all of which are among the bodies onto which you can slap your replacement head.

Aside from literalizing the dual-identity structure that has always offered us mild-mannered Clark Kents a means of climbing into Kryptonian god-suits, what I love about this is its neat encapsulation of the deeper ideological function of the 3D-printed fantasy object, giving people the opportunity not just to locate themselves amid an array of mass produced yet personally significant forms (as in, for example, a collection of action figures) but to materialize themselves within and as part of that array, through plastic avatars that also serve as a kind of cyborg expression of commercialized subjectivity. That Firebox (and, presumably, license-holder DC Comics) currently offer a controlled version of that hybridity is only, I think, a symptom of our prerevolutionary moment, poised at the brink of an explosion of such transmutations and transubstantiations, legal and illegal alike, though which the virtual and material objects of fantastic media will not just swap places but find freshly bizarre combinatorial forms.

Movie-a-Day April 2009-July 2011

Movie-a-day is almost as old as this blog itself; the second post I published here was a list of the films I’d watched over the course of June 2007. In retrospect, it’s perfectly fitting; what could better encapsulate blogging’s perversely personal yet public and professionally-tinged disclosures than obsessive catalogs of a media scholar’s viewing habits? Certainly the time I put in watching movies those first few summers after getting hired on the tenure track was intended to broaden my knowledge base and deepen my teaching — and if this gave me an excuse to settle comfortably into pleasant rituals of spectatorship, so much the better. But now, coming up on my fifth year of blogging, I see how movie-a-day has ruined me, for I no longer feel I’ve really watched something unless I’ve entered its title on the little documents I maintain here and there to track such trivia. (Currently I use a private PB Works wiki as my all-purpose ideaspace.)

The limbo this leads to — the realization of what a weightless experience film consumption really is — may be part of why I’ve periodically taken such long breaks from the blog, experimenting with oblivion as it were. Imagine my surprise and delight, then, when I recovered from what seemed a broken Google Doc a list of movies I watched from my most recent m.a.d. post to last summer. Those 170-some titles are below, with asterisks as usual marking the films that, for whatever reason, made the greatest impact on me. In its schematic way, these entries mark out a biography in filmgoing, charting between the lines the large and small events of two-and-a-quarter years in my life. There’s Abrams’s Star Trek reboot, which disabled my public voice in ways I still haven’t brought myself to fully explore, amid a sprinkling of paranoid thrillers and whackadoodle documentaries to prep for my Conspiracy class; elsewhere, the romantic comedies that are about the only cinema my wife and I agree on; in December 2009 my first (and so far only) three-day marathon of the Lord of the Rings extended editions, along with near back-to-back viewings of Avatar; a raft of movies from 2003 I worked through in order to write my chapter on that year for the Screen Decades series; a series of titles from spring 2011 I barely remember staring at as I gradually emerged from the numbness of losing our first child.

Perhaps the most significant movies on the list are the final two, from July 2011. Transformers: Dark of the Moon, an otherwise indefensible turd but the last thing I saw in a theater before we got the call from our adoption agency; and, a few days later, The Dark Crystal, which I watched on my iPad as I cradled a sleeping Zachary in my arms — making that strange and beautiful experiment in puppets and fantasy his first movie.

April 2009
Rachel Getting Married (Jonathan Demme, 2008)
Quarantine (John Erick Dowdle, 2008)
The Poughkeepsie Tapes (John Erick Dowdle, 2007) *
Let the Right One In (Tomas Alfredson, 2008) *
Anatomy of A Murder (Otto Preminger, 1959)

May 2009
Four Months, Three Weeks and Two Days (Cristian Mungiu, 2007)
The Reader (Stephen Daldry, 2008)
Lost Highway (David Lynch, 1997)
Subway (Luc Besson, 1985) *
I Spit On Your Grave (Meir Zarchi, 1978)
Planet of the Vampires (Mario Bava, 1965)
The Celebration (Thomas Vinterberg, 1998) *
The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T (Roy Rowland, 1953)
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (Rouben Mamoulian, 1931)
Irreversible (Gaspar Noe, 2002) *
Head (Bob Rafelson, 1968)
Gertrud (Carl Th. Dreyer, 1964)
The Last Man On Earth (Ubaldo Ragona and Sidney Salkow, 1964)
The Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting (Raoul Ruiz, 1978) *
Waco: The Rules of Engagement (William Gazecki, 1997)
Tell No One (Guillaume Canet, 2006)
Pickpocket (Robert Bresson, 1959) *
Dr. Cyclops (Ernest B. Schoedsack, 1940)
Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (Sergei Parajanov, 1964)
Star Trek (J. J. Abrams, 2009) *
Memories (Katsuhiro Otomo, 1995)
Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle (Danny Leiner, 2004)
Fire and Ice (Ralph Bakshi, 1983)
The Earrings of Madame de … (Max Ophuls, 1953)

June 2009
Shane (George Stevens, 1953)
Up (Pete Docter, 2009) *
Missing (Costa Gavras, 1982)

July-August 2009
Bolt (Chris Williams and Byron Howard, 2008)
District 9 (Neill Blomkamp, 2009) *
Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino, 2009) *
Monsters Vs. Aliens (Conrad Vernon and Rob Letterman, 2009)
Elephant (Gus Van Sant, 2003) *
Paranoid Park (Gus Van Sant, 2007)
The Hangover (Todd Phillips, 2009)
Superman: Doomsday (Bruce Timm, Lauren Montgomery, and Brandon Vietti, 2007)
Wanted (Timur Bekmambetov, 2008)
My Neighbor Totoro (Hayao Miyazaki, 1988)
Noroi (Koji Shiraishi, 2005) *
Bruce Almighty (Tom Shadyac, 2003)
Taken (Pierre Morel, 2008) *
The Proposal (Anne Fletcher, 2009)
New in Town (Jonas Elmer, 2009)
Burn After Reading (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2008)
Drag Me to Hell (Sam Raimi, 2009)
Knowing (Alex Proyas, 2009)

October 2009
Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, 2009)
The Fog of War (Errol Morris, 2003)
Paranormal Activity (Oren Peli, 2009) *
Helvetica (Gary Hustwit, 2007) *
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (David Yates, 2009)
Moon (Duncan Jones, 2009) *
The Secret Lives of Dentists (Alan Rudolph, 2003)
G.I. Joe – The Rise of Cobra (Stephen Sommers, 2009)
The Wrestler (Darren Aronofsky, 2008)
The Clinton Chronicles (Patrick Matrisciana, 1994)
Angels and Demons (Ron Howard, 2009)

November 2009
The Obama Deception (Alex Jones, 2009)
Terminator Salvation (McG, 2009)
Day for Night (Francois Truffaut, 1973)
And God Created Woman (Roger Vadim, 1956)
The Bigamist (Ida Lupino, 1953)
The Body Snatcher (Robert Wise, 1945)
The Taking of Pelham 123 (Tony Scott, 2009)
La Notte (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1961)
Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas (Tim Johnson and Patrick Gilmore, 2003)
Orphan (Jaume Collet-Serra, 2009)
The Ugly Truth (Robert Luketic, 2009)
Jennifer’s Body (Karyn Kusama, 2009)

December 2009
The Fellowship of the Ring (Peter Jackson, 2001)
The Two Towers (Peter Jackson, 2002)
The Return of the King (Peter Jackson, 2003)
Barry Lyndon (Stanley Kubrick, 1975) *
Four Christmases (Seth Gordon, 2008)
Star Trek (J. J. Abrams, 2009)
Julie and Julia (Nora Ephron, 2009)
Avatar (James Cameron, 2009) *
Love Actually (Roger Curtis, 2003)
Elf (Jon Favreau, 2003)
Avatar (James Cameron, 2009)

January 2010
Bruno (Larry Charles, 2009)

May 2010
Funny Games (Michael Haneke, 2008)
Iron Man (Jon Favreau, 2008)
Kick-Ass (Matthew Vaughn, 2010)
Magnum Force (Ted Post, 1973)
The Crazies (Breck Eisner, 2010)
Tokyo Gore Police (Yoshihiro Nishimura, 2008) *
Two-Lane Blacktop (Monte Hellman, 1971) *
The Road (John Hillcoat, 2009)
Shutter Island (Martin Scorsese, 2010)
Dirty Harry (Don Siegel, 1971)
Valentine’s Day (Garry Marshall, 2010)
AM 1200 (David Prior, 2008) *

June 2010
Hulk (Ang Lee, 2003)
X2: X-Men United (Bryan Singer, 2003)
Iron Man 2 (Jon Favreau, 2010)
The Hills Have Eyes 2 (Martin Weisz, 2007)
In the Loop (Armando Iannucci, 2009)
Toy Story 3 (Lee Unkrich, 2010)
28 Days Later (Danny Boyle, 2002)
Martyrs (Pascal Laugier, 2008) *

July 2010
Greenberg (Noah Baumbach, 2010)
Sex and the City 2 (Michael Patrick King, 2010)
The Book of Eli (The Hughes Brothers, 2010)
Harry Brown (Daniel Barber, 2009)
Date Night (Shawn Levy, 2010)
Youth in Revolt (Miguel Arteta, 2009)
Inception (Christopher Nolan, 2010)
Salt (Phillip Noyce, 2010)
The Usual Suspects (Bryan Singer, 1995)
The Ghost Writer (Roman Polanski, 2010) *
Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (Peter Weir, 2003)

August 2010
Dinner for Schmucks (Jay Roach, 2010)
The Other Guys (Adam McKay, 2010)
The Last House on the Left (Dennis Illiadis, 2009)
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (Shane Black, 2005)
Pontypool (Bruce McDonald, 2009)
An Education (Lone Scherfig, 2009) *
10,000 BC (Roland Emmerich, 2008)
Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (Nicholas Meyer, 1991)

September 2010
Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World (Edgar Wright, 2010)
The House of the Devil (Ti West, 2009)
Frontier(s) (Xavier Gens, 2007)
Dead Snow (Tommy Wirkola, 2009)
Batman: Under the Red Hood (Brandon Vietti, 2010)
Splice (Vincenzo Natali, 2009)

October 2010
The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972) *
The Godfather Part II (Francis Ford Coppola, 1974) *
How to Train Your Dragon (Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois, 2010)
The Social Network (David Fincher, 2010)
Zodiac (David Fincher, 2007)
The Fall (Tarsem Singh, 2006)
Winter’s Bone (Debra Granik, 2010) *
It’s Kind of a Funny Story (Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, 2010)
The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980) *

November 2010
Twilight (Catherine Hardwicke, 2008)
Megamind (Tom McGrath, 2010)
House (Nobuhiko Obayashi, 1977) *
Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (John Newland, 1973) *

December 2010
Tron: Legacy (Joseph Kosinski, 2010) *
The Queen (Stephen Frears, 2006)
The Family Stone (Thomas Bezucha, 2005)
Gone Baby Gone (Ben Affleck, 2007)
Back to the Future (Robert Zemeckis, 1985)
Back to the Future 2 (Robert Zemeckis, 1989)

January 2011
Matango (Ishiro Honda, 1963)
Paranormal Activity 2 (Tod Williams, 2010)
The Kids Are All Right (Lisa Cholodenko, 2010)
The King’s Speech (Tom Hooper, 2010) *
127 Hours (Danny Boyle, 2010)

February 2011
Frankenstein (James Whale, 1931)
Black Swan (Darren Aronofsky, 2010)
Predators (Nimrod Antal, 2010)
Away We Go (Sam Mendes, 2009)
Equinox (Dennis Muren, 1970)
Kings Row (Sam Wood, 1942)

March 2011
Tangled (Nathan Greno and Byron Howard, 2010)
The Next Three Days (Paul Haggis, 2010) *
Love and Other Drugs (Edward Zwick, 2010)
The Fighter (David O. Russell, 2010)

April 2011
Source Code (Duncan Jones, 2011) *
Unstoppable (Tony Scott, 2010)
Get Low (Aaron Schneider, 2009)
The Number 23 (Joel Schumacher, 2007)

May 2011
Blue Valentine (Derek Cianfrance, 2010) *
Thor (Kenneth Branagh, 2011)
Battle: Los Angeles (Jonathan Liebesman, 2011)
Ju-on (Takashi Shimizu, 2000)
I Saw the Devil (Kim Ji-woon, 2010) *
Bridesmaids (Paul Feig, 2011)

June 2011
Unknown (Jaume Collet-Serra, 2011)
Kung Fu Panda 2 (Jennifer Yuh Nelson, 2011)
Cedar Rapids (Miguel Arteta, 2011)
Limitless (Neil Burger, 2011) *
Frozen (Adam Green, 2010)
The Tunnel (Carlo Ledesma, 2011)
Super 8 (J. J. Abrams, 2011) *
Insidious (James Wan, 2011)
Cedar Rapids (Miguel Arteta, 2011)

July 2011
Transformers: Dark of the Moon (Michael Bay, 2011)
The Dark Crystal (Jim Henson and Frank Oz, 1982) *

Coming attraction

Wow, here’s a discovery: a Google doc I’d thought corrupted and unreadable (a case of acid rain in the computer’s cloud) yielded up its secrets when shared to and opened from another Google account. I retrieved a file recording my Movie-A-Day activities over the course of something like three years. Formatting the list, however, turns out to be a bit of a slog: a monotonous yet demandingly precise pointing-and-clicking which, at 12:30 a.m., exceeds the stamina depleted by a wakeful baby the night before. So I’ll simply leave this post as a preview of what’s to come: the return of a once-standard feature on this blog, a long-ass list of movies I’ve watched and some accompanying commentary. Look for it tomorrow.

Notes on blueprint culture 1

My conversation today with an interesting young man — a Swarthmore student — about Mass Effect 3, a topic on which I’m preparing a future post, reminds me that blueprint culture arises not just around the “metatexts” and “hyperdiegeses” of literary, television, and film franchises’ fictional worlds, but those of video games as well. In fact, mapping and schematizing activities subtend any number of fictional media worlds, including those associated with comic books and fantasy wargaming (the latter a particularly interesting case in that its maps frequently function as actual spatial matrices of player engagement, its tables of character attributes actionable scripts for determining the turn-by-turn progressive generation of narrative and battle; in this sense, perhaps, fantasy wargames constitute a purer ur-form of referential play whose hallmarks, applied to more authorially-locked territories of noninteractive media, are unavoidably adulterated by a secondary, paratextual distance).

What makes a fictional world particularly amenable to blueprinting and referential treatment? (Note for further investigation the close lexical kinship between reference and reverence.) Looking at the invented universes that spring most quickly to mind as examples — Star Trek and Star Wars — I would argue for a list of attributes that includes the following:

  • belonging to the genre of science fiction, esp. “hard” SF, and some forms of fantasy
  • primarily visual in their base form (e.g. movies and television)
  • marked by distinctive design motifs that are also proprietary in nature, marking off one intellectual property from another
  • serial in nature and consisting of multiple instances (i.e. single, standalone films rarely have blueprint cultures associated with them; similarly one-off TV episodes, rare entities within that medium in any case); see “transmediated” below
  • as a consequence, containing large amounts of detail rendered still vaster and more extensive within the blueprinting practice
  • strong on continuity, often an outgrowth of limited numbers of repeatedly-visited settings
  • active or once-active fan bases (here an archeological/tautological factor: the very study of blueprint culture is premised on the availability of an archive constitued through blueprinting practices, themselves inherently textually generative; the wave of fan activity, once passed, leaves documentation in its trail like a waste product, or less pejoratively, something like a coral reef)
  • frequently the locus of officially-authored blueprinting as well, via tie-in texts
  • transmediated, or implemented across multiple media platforms, its very proliferation in part a function of blueprint materials that stabilize the fictional universe as an IP, organizing its extension and seeking to maintain coherence (an action whose continuousness suggests an equally relentless counterforce that threatens to decohere and scatter the storyworld’s textual instances)

On Blueprint Culture

As promised in my last post, I am undertaking a new essay project, one whose first draft I will write in public on this blog. I haven’t yet committed to a deadline, but my hope is to pull this together rather quickly, writing in small daily chunks — let’s say as a ballpark estimate the end of the month. I face some challenges here: with classes ending in two weeks, it’s the height of a busy semester (and I’m at my most burned out), and revisions on our essays for the BFI special effects anthology need to go out by April 15. But as JFK said of going to the moon, “we do these things not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”

The essay in question is a long-simmering project involving blueprint culture, something I’ve only recent started to blog about but which has been on my mind since summer 2005, when I wrote the earliest version of my Star Trek chapter for the dissertation at Indiana University. Since then, my conception of the project has broadened past Roddenberry’s franchise to embrace a larger set of fan and professional practices devoted to mapping, drafting, indexing, and historicizing the storyworlds of fantastic media, from film and television franchises to literary and video game universes. In tomorrow’s post, I will condense my current thinking about blueprint culture and sketch out the argument I plan to make, before moving on to identify subtopics and amass resources.

Six weeks

Having sung the praises of Fridays and gloomed about Sundays, am I set on turning Mondays into self-reflexive meditations on method? Evidently so, at least until the spring semester ends and time opens up a little. Tonight I (gently) chastised my wife for skipping her picture-a-day project on Facebook,* but as usual when it comes to judging others, in truth I am just projecting my own anxiety — in this case, an almost superstitious dread of disrupting a chain of daily posts now six weeks long and counting. Keeping it up has meant sacrificing a number of things I once held dear: cherished notins of myself as a brilliant writer, lingeringly slow-cooked prose, a certain dignity and distance in my choice of topics. Laudable goals all, but maybe too a little hollow and egocentric, and often unconducive to productivity. Instead, I’m discovering the hard comfort of routine, the discipline of a writing practice, along with a new kind of notch to cut into the wall.

That said, I’m also feeling the need to start working these daily posts into something longer and more substantive — an actual, paper publication — so that will be the next horizon. It won’t happen without a deadline and some goalposts, so over the next several days I will begin mapping out an experiment in scholarship, an essay to be drafted, as it were, in public. I approach this with some trepidation but also excitement: as with the act of teaching, through which my body has evolved a new organ for converting anxiety to energy, writing this blog is helping to wear down the last vestiges of resistance to taking risks.

* She intends to post two pictures tomorrow.

 

Good Night, and Good Luck.

Once again, thanks to my TV & New Media course, it is time to watch Good Night, and Good Luck (George Clooney, 2005), and once again I am reminded what a beautifully intimate experience it is. On the manifest level of its narrative, the film details the crusade of Edward R. Murrow and the See It Now news team to take Senator Joseph McCarthy to task for his many transgressions against democracy, and it’s gripping stuff: but on the latent level of its mise-en-scene, the movie is all about the television studios, elevators, lobbies, and offices at CBS — pristine spaces rendered in crisp black-and-white cinematography (actually the result of shooting grayscale sets in color, then digitally timing them to a sublime monochrome) and redolent of technological and cultural power as only the broadcast TV era could embody it. In its period evocation it’s Mad Men played straight, and unlike the AMC series, the total lack of exterior shots gives the whole thing the hermetic feel of a holodeck simulation.

When I first saw the film, the U.S. was gritting its teeth through George W. Bush’s second term, and its messages about the abuse of governmental power and patriotic ideology were impossible to read as anything other than statements about our post-9/11 world. Seven years later, the connotative corset has loosened, and exciting resonances with the passionately essayistic journalism of Rachel Maddow and the breathless pace of blogging and spreadable media (an electrical feeling of liveness and deadline I experience, if only in a small way, in my new daily posting regimen) tie Murrow’s moment to our own, inviting us to see the “old” in new media, and vice versa. I’m looking forward to discussing it with my students!