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Teaching Transmedia with Comics: A Conversation with Tyler Weaver
When I first heard about Tyler Weaver’s book that places comics squarely at the center of transmedia, I thought it was too good to be true (I’ve long argued for giving comics a more central role in all discussions of media). Then I got the book and found out it was even better than that. Making connections across multiple forms of pop culture–like this blog, only more authoritatively–Weaver has produced a work that I strongly believe should be in all secondary schools and certainly all libraries. As a reference work on media/transmedia both aesthetically and historically, as a how-to for student media-makers, or simply on the professional development shelf, so that teachers and librarians can mine it for ideas, it’s a text that can fill many needs at once. I was delighted, then, when the author agreed to talk to me about this fascinating topic…
Your book is addressed to budding transmedia practitioners–authors and filmmakers, for example–who would do well to consider creating comics to build interest and engagement, and to expand their fictional worlds. But how would you change your advice if addressing tweens and teens, or those who work with them to create media? One could probably write another book on this alone, but what handful of precepts might you emphasize?
I don’t know that I would necessarily change anything, but I would be sure to emphasize that the most important requirement of creating comics (or creating with any medium) is that you have to have an exemplary storytelling sense. It all comes down to the craft of telling a story that makes readers, viewers, players and so on, want to absorb that story into their lives.
From there, I’d focus on the building blocks of comics storytelling, the elements that make comics comics: page, panel, art, narration, word balloon, thought balloon, sound effects, gutter, grid. What stories are best told through the comics medium? How can you tell a story that is OF the comics medium and not just an extended storyboard with staples? What story can you find that will let you bring your own unique voice to comics?
Once you’ve got those pieces in place, then you can add in the third layer, one that, thanks to the ongoing democratization of content creation, is of utmost import: combining media, and having the option of comics being an integral part of that. It’s the idea of the chef: learn the basic tools, then an understanding of ingredients, then how to build flavors by combining those ingredients into an irresistible meal.
Clearly one idea in your book that doesn’t need to be explained to educators or kids is the notion of comics creation as a form of unleashing “the inner child”–that those making comics can be playful and “have fun with the medium.” But are there other reasons we might want to encourage young people to put comics at the forefront of their transmedia projects? Is it simply an easier medium for them, or is that a poor reason? For that matter, how might we respond to someone who says, “Kids creating comics has its own enormous benefits, so why should I bother teaching all this fancy transmedia stuff. Isn’t that overload?” Sorry–that was actually a few questions.
I wouldn’t say that comics is (“comics” in the singular, to use Scott McCloud’s parlance in Understanding Comics) an easy medium for anyone to work with. Look at the number of atrocities still called comics that are churned out on a monthly basis. Comics is tremendously difficult to do well, and very easy to do poorly.
For me, the appeal of comics lies in the iconic storytelling capabilities of the medium. As Scott McCloud said in Understanding Comics, everything is an icon in comics. Comics is a distillation of reality into iconic form to foster greater understanding. Comics can be used to process complex ideas, give instruction, or tell a story in a primal and exciting manner. From that perspective, comics can be valuable in the learning process, certainly more engaging than your typical textbook. But, from the viewpoint of a creator, by allowing students to create with a medium, you give them the chance to explore the potential of the medium and of themselves. The exploration of potential is beautiful; I know it’s what keeps me going, even in–especially in–my professional career as writer.
Not only that, but working with comics, particularly if you make the creation of comics a group activity (a small group of students taking on each role, the writer, artist, colorist, inker, letterer, for instance), will teach valuable lessons in collaboration, in listening to the ideas of others, in accepting criticism, and in realizing that everything in the creation of content must be in service of the final product, not in the individual ego.
As far as teaching the “transmedia stuff,” there are tremendous benefits to be had. It can foster a better understanding of how stories are told today. It can teach kids to think critically about how they consume entertainment. Not only that, but by teaching transmedia storytelling, the teacher exposes students to the combinatorial nature of transmedia, showing how deeper meaning can be mined through the combination of media and divergent paths. Video games follow this combinatorial and divergent path methodology. Look at Bioshock. There’s the main story of Jack, of Andrew Ryan, and of the various characters that populate the world of Rapture, but if you pick up tape players/recorders, you can hear the history of Rapture via different inhabitants and points of view and find deeper meaning in your adventures. It’s a medium within a medium representing divergent paths from the main narrative. The Internet is built of divergent paths: do you read an entire article on Wikipedia or do you click on links as you go, going deeper into the main story? Everybody does it differently.This is a powerful lesson, and one that will undoubtedly serve the student in the years to come as storytelling and the world around them evolves. Choice will be–and is–the defining characteristic of 21st century storytelling. That’s not to say that the classics of literature or that mono-media (single media) storytelling like novels and comics are going to fade away. I’m the first one to say that you should only add transmedia elements if it benefits the story being told. “The march of time” and the path forward to the future of storytelling isn’t one of replacement, it’s one of complement.
Nowadays I see even foreign language teachers, whom one doesn’t immediately associate with making media, assigning projects where students use flip cameras and iMovie to produce videos. So with media creation spread out across disciplines–kids might make animations in tech class, something else in visual arts, and of course write prose or sequential narratives, or digital stories, in English and social studies–and transmedia kind of compounding this by involving a range of media, what does the role of the media specialist or librarian then become? In other words, if you were at the hub of both media and the different disciplines, how might you go about organizing or coordinating an interdisciplinary or team-teaching approach to helping students create transmedia?
There are two ways that a transmedia project is absorbed: The first is as the creators intend it, in the order they intend it (if they intend it to be absorbed in any order) The second–and more powerful means–is in the order that the audience discovers it. Through the audience “shuffling the deck” as it were, and experiencing it on their own time, in their own order, a different and potentially deeper meaning can be discovered.
The journey of actual physical discovery is of utmost importance to a transmedia story. It’s what separates transmedia storytelling from mono-media storytelling (and demonstrates the influence video games have had on our storytelling–in a good way). An ideal library hub would offer students a way to absorb a project on their own terms and facilitate that “discovery” trait. It would also encourage discussion between students on their different experiences with a work, and present the students with an opportunity to examine media through a combinatorial lens–like a chef–instead of simply a means of entertainment.
[Tomorrow the second part of our chat will be up. In it, we talk (more) about video games, what librarians and media specialists can do in a practical sense regarding transmedia, and how the Marvel Universe relates to, um, radical intertextuality. See you then… -Peter]
About Peter Gutierrez
A former middle school teacher, Peter Gutierrez has spent the past 20 years developing curriculum as well as working in, and writing about, various branches of pop culture. You can sample way too many of his thoughts about media and media literacy via Twitter: @Peter_Gutierrez
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