Director, Comparative Media Studies
Professor of Literature
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Media changes over the past decade and their affect on popular culture have piqued Henry Jenkins interest. In explaining these changes, Jenkins provides some basic definitions. A medium is more than a technology. It is a mode of ownership, production, and distribution. It is a creative process. It includes social norms, demographics, and genres. A medium is constantly changing on a local level; however, we see continuity. Hence, this change is not sudden, but has its own distinct ebb and flow. Change is best exemplified by the convergence of media, a coming together of multiple media at various sectors in people's lives. This convergence is not a process, but an endpoint - an evolution, not a revolution. And, it is not singular but multiple. Technologies converge and as a result there is fluidity and linking together of varied information.
To ground this ethereal theorizing, Jenkins looks to the comic book as a case study, specifically within American culture. The comic book makes a wonderful case study because it has a relatively short history, its rate of change is rapid, all other media are touched by it, and it is a testing ground for experimentation. As print media, comics combine words and images, similar to tapestries or stain glass windows. Factors shaping the emergence of comics around the turn of the century are multiple. Technological change included the availability of color ink. The expansion of literacy, increasing public education, and the heterogeneity of consumers living in urban environments represent sociocultural forces. Competition for newspaper readers speaks to economic dimensions. And, finally we see aesthetics playing a role; the recruitment of art school students translating the seeds of modern art to the larger public.
In the next historical phase, comics previously printed in newspapers are gathered together into the more permanent form of magazines. In this medium, artists begin to produce new, original material. To do so, they looked to pulp magazines (e.g. The Phantom) and early adventure comic strips (e.g. Flash Gordon). Four or five years after the emergence of these comic books, Superman is introduced, and soon afterwards we see an explosion of superheroes. By 1945, seven million Americans were reading comicbooks - this is half of the U.S. populace at the time. In 1948, a billion comic books were printed. Increasingly though, comic book content targets adult audiences with its sexual undertones, references to violence, and political subtext (e.g. Tales from the Crypt). Consumers were more mature. The medium was not just for kids as genre and content became diversified in the post-war years.
However, the 1950's gave rise to moral panic, instigated by Frederic Wertham's 1952 work, "Seduction of the Innocent." The Comic Code was established as pressure from Congress called for the industry to self-regulate. It is at this time in the history of the comic book that we see the mainstreaming of the medium. Nothing was published that could not be read by young children (i.e. Casper the Friendly Ghost). Readership numbers never fully recovered from the backlash generated during this period. By the 1960's comics had gone undergrown, emerging as a component of the counterculture replete with pornographic and drug references. These material texts were largely circulated in San Francisco headshops; distribution and production mirrored the strategies and styles of those used for concert posters.
Over the next two decades, the comic book's readership became increasingly specialized. Distribution moves from the newstand to the comic book shop. Concomitant with this shift in space is one in perception; comics are characterized as furtive and cultish. The Simpson's Comic Book Guy provides a particularly accurate characterization. As a result, comics become heavily serialized and commodified, a canon or archival structure is created as well as an awareness of authorship, and the child readership is lost. Regarding this last point, we see a self-perpetuating system in which readers are becoming older and older. In response, comics re-envisioned as graphic novels are produced for bookstores (e.g. Art Spiegelman's "Maus"). We also see a reemergence of the comic avant garde; there is experimentation with shape and color.
The final word has yet to be written for the comic book. In their most current manifestation, comics represent a transmedia phenomenon, superheroes being the most notable dimension. Superman and Batman have become a conglomerate culture as we see a proliferation of these characters in film, television, and print. On the other hand, unlike Warner Brothers (who owns DC Comics), Marvel licenses their superheroes out individually (e.g. The Hulk, Spiderman, X-Men) so that the market is not as glutted. The lower production cost of comic books also makes them a wonderful venue for expanding the scope of superheroes localized to television and cinema. The stories and characters introduced on the television show "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," for instance, are expanded in the comic version "Tales of the Slayer."
Facilitating this convergence is the web. The web enables new niche markets, especially for those potential comic readers who are poorly served by bookstores. There is also movement between print and web cultures, as the former use the latter to appeal to a wider audience, even on the global level. In addition, the web supports a fan community, and allows for the expansion and annotation of comics' content. Ultimately, comics are under constant revision, as we see radical shifts in style, genre, and artistry.