ComicStoryworld Uncut: Henry Jenkins

Welcome to the third uncut interview from COMICS FOR FILM, GAMES AND ANIMATIONIn this installment, I chatted with Henry Jenkins about the death of Elseworlds, what it is that makes comics so irresistible to fans, and the future of the comics medium.


This interview was conducted in January, 2012. Excerpts from this interview originally appeared in Chapter 26 of Comics for Film, Games and Animation. Henry was also kind enough to interview me at his website, CONFESSIONS OF AN ACA/FAN. (PART ONE | PART TWO).

We’ve all been bitten by the comics bug at one point or another. How did it get you? 

I started reading comics – like most people my age — in the 1960s, and I think it was informed by the BATMAN TV show, which, I suppose as a modern comic fan, I’m supposed to repudiate, but it actually got me excited about the medium and the superhero genre in particular. And then, somewhere, mid-high school, like a lot of people, put it aside and didn’t pay any attention until grad school, early-assistant professor-hood, where I kept seeing really interesting things develop and that was the time period of WATCHMEN and DARK KNIGHT [RETURNS] and MAUS and so forth, and people kept saying “you gotta see this!” The excitement was infectious, and I got back into comics and over the last 20 years or so, have gotten deeper and deeper into comics until it’s taking over my house!

What is it about them [comics] now that’s keeping you coming back for more? 

Comics is the most compelling of contemporary media because it’s trying so much new stuff just to survive. It’s always on the cusp of collapsing on itself. It’s also the quickest “response medium” in terms of any development in the culture. We could see in comics’  response to 9/11 prototypes for the way the rest of the media were going to respond. But the comics were on the scene — literally in the case of 9/11; they weren’t very far from the World Trade Center, DC and Marvel in particular. They also had quicker turnarounds and there was an interesting moment where the lines between “independent” or “alternative” comics and mainstream comics just completely collapsed. We’ve seen such interesting work coming out there since then. But it’s just part of a larger process of just being the “testing grounds” for ideas about genre, world-building, backstory, seriality that are very much driving the entertainment industry right now. So I see it as my “early warning system” for everything else that I look at.

In terms of my own work, I have one project that’s sort of a little on the back burner right now, it’s on genre theory that’s interested in the superhero in particular and what it means for a genre to dominate a medium as much as a superhero has tended to dominate American comics. How do we think about diversity within genres and combinations within genres and experimentation within genres to account for how rich the superhero has been as a genre that storytellers have mined since the 1930s?

What fascinates me about experimentation in comics is that it really comes from a survival necessity within the medium. You don’t see that “survival instinct” in other media. 

It’s odd, because on one hand, having a readership of roughly 100,000 — 200,000 — readers means the risk is relatively low. Cost of production is low compared to other media so you can take risk. On the other hand [comics are] constantly on the edge of desperation. You have a motivation to take risk when… when you’re going to go down in flames anyway, you might as well take something big with you.

That’s one of the things that concerns me a little bit, as DC and Marvel are being absorbed into the major media companies is some push-back on the experimentation side of this. Dan Didio, when he spoke to my transmedia class in the fall made it clear that, with DC renumbering and rebooting, that Elseworlds was dead as far as he was concerned. That just seems to me a fatal mistake.

I’d like the rest of the industry to pay attention to Elseworlds as a model of what I call “Multiplicity.” A lot of transmedia has been based on the concept of “continuity,” which comes from comics too, of course. But they’re all about “can we get all the pieces to line up perfectly?” In an industrial context, where these are being built by different divisions of companies, perfect alignment is never going to happen. So, instead of going in that direction, imagine playing with what comics have done and saying “we can explore these characters through multiple lenses” and get interesting things to emerge.

An example I use is the reboot of the STAR TREK series, where they spent the better first part of the movie just trying to explain something really basic: this is the same characters, just different cast, things might take a different direction. Comics solve that by putting “All-Star” or “Ultimate” in front of the title and saying “this is a different direction.” You can deal with the fact that there’s a main continuity in comics and another version that’s going to explore those stories from a new angle — go with it. Comics can go further and say “this is Superman landing in Russia and fighting for truth, justice, and the Soviet Way” in a way that no mainstream movie has done — so far.

Let’s talk a little bit about comics fandom. What really drives these fans to so passionately follow these comics? 

What I say about almost all fandoms is that they’re born from a mixture of frustration and fascination. Comics fandom is as much that way as any other, which unless you’re fascinated with something, you don’t engage with it over as long a period a time as comics fans deal with it. At the same time, if it fully satisfies you, you’re not going to engage with it as critically or creatively as comic fans deal with it, right?

If you go on the boards with comics fans, they rip everything, right? If you’re a comics artist, you’ve got to have an incredibly thick skin because they’re gonna be the most precise critical readers you can get — and it’s born from love. I think people who understand fandom just as “passion” or “fascination” but don’t understand the frustration don’t get the complexity of that dynamic. It’s because they really care that they’re being incredibly critical. And if they really care and they’re critical, they want to get information as soon as they possibly can, and they like to have input while the decisions are still being made. I think this is a push across all of the media industries right now; fans are spoiling, in part, to head off at the pass, bad decisions where they start to effect the quality of the experience. They have access to more rich sources of information. They have more capacity — collectively — to access, process and respond to information than ever before. And they want to be under the hood helping to make the decisions that effect the franchises they care about.

That’s where “spoiling” starts to come into this. Spoiling in comics in particular used to be not about just antiquating what’s going to happen before it happens, but critically responding to it before it’s printed in ink.

What role then does “the power of anonymity” have in this community? Does it make them more critical in some ways? 

In some cases, yes. I think that’s a classic frame. I’m not sure it matters. You see these guys sitting around in the comic shop or sitting in the Con, they’re every bit as bitchy about this stuff as when you can’t see who they are (laughs). Many of these guys are in the business of building a reputation in terms of their mastery and their critical skills – their access to information and decision makers. The idea that it’s based on anonymousness goes against the idea that it’s about building a reputation. I think a lot of these guys are — I think there are cases where anonymous stuff matters; but I think you could make everything “on the record,” and you wouldn’t fundamentally change the tone.

How much sway do you think that holds with the big companies or independent creators?

I think there’s a very real dialogue that takes place. Some of them are choosing to insert themselves in the middle of that dialogue and some are not. Some of them are making very strong web presences, seeking out that fan feedback, and others are trying to block it out and not interfere with their creative process. It’s where all creative industries are at right now. You suddenly have greater access to the response of  your readers than before — what do you do with that?

It’s always been there. We have stories of Dickens rewriting his serial novels as they’re unfolding based on the response of his readers. That kind of response has always been there. But the amount of it now — and all the industries struggle with “is this fan representative of something other than himself?” Or, even if its a niche of fans, how much does that represent the dominant fan market?

Comics are odd in that way because if you’ve got a hundred thousand readers, the fan forums attract a thousand of them. That’s a pretty different phenomenon than six million viewers of a television show and a thousand of them respond. You’ve got a much larger percentage of the whole participating in online conversation because the readership is so hard-core. The industry — when it gets that — sort of struggles between the response of “you’re not gonna tell me what to do, I’m the creator and I control this” and their position that they’re trying to hold onto a market that’s very precarious. They want to hear what the audience is thinking at every step along the way and if they can head off a decision that’s going to be a costly one, they probably want to do it at this point.

What is it that’s so irresistible about continuity to people? Comics is one of the few media that can really really do it well, and their fan base is so protective of that continuity.

Continuity is a place where fans can demonstrate their mastery. The continuity rewards people who read over time, who read across multiple books. As a publisher, you want to build up that loyalty, you want to make it as eclectic in what it reads as possible; get them reading all 52 books a month. That’s your ideal consumer. Odds they’re not. You’ve got to design continuity in a way that people can pick and choose and it becomes a very complex thing to manage. On the producer side, that’s the biggest hook for consumer loyalty. On the audience side where the payoff comes from being the guy who’s read this book for forty years and knows every issue by number and can tell you when you make a mistake. That mentality rewards the collector —  of the expertise — of fans in a way that few other media do.

What role do you think digital comics are going to have as “the march of time” continues?

Hard to tell. It looks like they’re going to be a sizable chunk of how people consume the mainstream titles. We’re watching the collapse of Borders, of bookstore sales. Barnes and Noble is invested heavily in the Nook, and battles with the publishers are leading to slammed doors on the Barnes and Noble side. Unless you only want to be in the specialty shops, which is a dwindling trade, you’re going to have to go to digital. They’re going to have to rely on Amazon more than they’ve done before. Amazon themselves are seeing that sales of Kindle books have gone up while sales of print books are going down. The entire publishing industry is struggling with it.

I don’t think they’ll have a choice but to reach a point where comics are available “in real time,” via digital media but the price point has to be lowered to reflect the digital publishing.