Over*Flow: Unlocking Disability: A Short Analysis of Representations of Disability in Netflix’s Locke & Key
Ryan Banfi / University of southern california

Locke & Key, a Netflix Original Series
Locke & Key, a Netflix Original Series

Numerous network and streaming companies failed to adapt Joe Hill’s six-book comic series, Locke & Key (2008-2013), for TV/film. The adaptation of Locke & Key for TV was first attempted by Fox in 2010. Universal Studios endeavored to produce a movie trilogy based on the graphic novels in 2014. IDW Entertainment tried to adapt Hill’s series for television in 2016. In 2017, Hulu ordered a pilot of Locke & Key, but the company later abandoned the project. In 2018, Netflix decided to produce a ten-part season of Hill’s comics. The show was available to stream on February 7th, 2020.

Adapting Locke & Key is cumbersome due to the graphic violence in the comics. The plot revolves around a demon attempting to murder the Locke family in order to obtain their magical keys. The Locke’s weapon of defense is their supernatural home, named Keyhouse, and the various enchanted keys that live there. It is axiomatic that the creators of the Netflix produced Locke & Key (2020-) show, Meredith Averill, Aron Eli Coleite, and Carlton Cuse, sacrificed the adult content of the source material for a “one size fits all” television version of the comics. On the back of volumes 2-6 of Locke & Key, a parental advisory warning near the bar code states that the comics are “Suggested for Mature Readers” (Vol. 1 is absent of this warning). The Netflix TV series is rated TV-14, a step down from what the show would have been rated, TV-MA, had the series stayed truer to the graphic novels. Any depiction of Nina Locke or Ellie Whedon being raped, or Dodge’s ruthless murders and harsh language had been scrubbed away for streaming.

Netflix’s omission of this explicit material marred the themes of disability in the show, whereas Joe Hill’s comics discussed the hardships of people with disabilities explicitly. This downplayed the importance of Rufus Whedon, a character with disabilities, in the TV program. In the comics, Rufus is the sole character who understands Dodge’s master plan to obtain the Omega Key. Because Rufus is cognitively delayed, the other characters overlook his intelligence. Rufus endures Dodge’s use of the epithet, “retard,” and Dodge’s various comments about having him locked away for his disability. All of this is proven to be “too real”[ (( For an analysis of soap operas avoiding the “reality” of having disabled characters in their shows please see Cumberbatch, Guy and Negrine, Ralph. Images of Disability on Television. New York: Routledge, 1992, 81-82.))] for a TV-14 show that is more interested in the soap opera aspect of the comics than it is with discussing the source of the horror in the graphic novels–violence towards minorities.

Netflix casted an actor with Autism named Coby Bird to play Rufus Whedon. Bird proudly displays his bio on his Instagram and his Twitter account–“I am a 17 year old actor with Autism. Rufus Whedon on Netflix’s Locke & Key. Guest Star: Speechless & The Good Doctor. Autism/Disability Advocate.” Before playing Rufus in Locke & Key, Bird guest starred as Liam West, a patient with Autism, in the show, The Good Doctor (2017-). In the episode, “22 Steps” (1.7), the hero of the show, Dr. Shaun Murphy (Freddie Highmore), treats Liam West. Dr. Murphy is a young surgeon with Autism and Savant Syndrome. The casting of Highmore to play Dr. Murphy exhibits “crip face,” which is a term that is used to describe a nondisabled person playing a character with disabilities in a show or film.

Cody Bird Sharing an Image on Insta
Coby Bird shares a photo of himself on the set of Netflix’s Locke & Key via his Instagram

Albeit Netflix counteracts “crip face” by hiring Coby Bird for the role of Rufus, they also devalue Joe Hill’s version of the character.[ (( See Paul Longmore’s foundational essay on representations of disability in media, Longmore, Paul K. “Screening Stereotypes: Images of Disabled People.” In Screening Disability: Essays on Cinema and Disability edited by Smit, Christopher R., and Enns, Anthony, 1-17. Lanham: University Press of America, Inc., 2001.))] The TV program deletes Rufus’ engagement with others who doubt his abilities. Rufus’ complex character arc–from shy guy to brave soldier–is nonexistent.

In the comic saga, Dodge imposes himself on his ex-high school girlfriend, Ellie Whedon (Rufus’ mother). While staying at the Whedon residence, Dodge continually rapes Ellie and uses magic in front of Rufus. Dodge states that he can commit sorcery while Rufus watches because Rufus “doesn’t understand” what he is seeing (Vol. 2, pg. 14). Dodge’s dismissal of Rufus is his downfall.

Gabriel Rodriguez's artwork of Rufus Whedon in the comic
Gabriel Rodriguez’s artwork of Rufus Whedon in the comic, Locke & Key

Dodge consistently refers to Rufus as a “retard” (Vol. 2, pgs. 45; 97; 98; and Vol. 6, pg. 155). However, Rufus is the most capable character in the comic book series because he “understand[s] everything” (Vol. 6, pg. 137). Rufus’ innocence allows him to see the magical keys being used, whereas adults are unable to comprehend the sorcery of the keys. Rufus is also safeguarded by the effects of the keys. For example, Dodge is unable to use the Head Key to erase Rufus’ memory because Rufus’ neck does not contain a keyhole (Vol. 2, pg. 142). Moreover, Rufus is able to see Bodie’s specter after Bodie’s body has been possessed by Dodge via the Ghost Key (Vol. 6, pg. 34). Rufus’ purity shields him from the conniving adult world. This makes him all the wiser.

Rufus Whedon speaks with Bodie Locke's specter in the comic
Rufus Whedon speaks with Bodie Locke’s specter in the comic, Locke & Key

Although Rufus productively protects the Locke family, the town of Lovecraft punishes him for being too competent for his disposition. After Rufus attacks the Dodge-possessed-Bodie in Vol. 6 (pg. 35), he is placed in a mental ward (Vol. 6, pg. 36). Despite the town’s dismissal of Rufus, it is Rufus who escapes from the asylum and it is he who kills Dodge by carrying him back into the wellhouse where Dodge was previously kept (Vol. 6, pg. 156).

Netflix’s Rufus is used sparingly and problematically. We first see Rufus in the opening episode, “Welcome to Matheson” (1.1). Rufus does not speak. He waves his army doll at Bodie (Jackson Robert Scott) to show a gesture of affection. A reverse shot displays Bodie mirroring Rufus’ salute. In the segment “Keeper/Trapper” (1.2), Rufus hands a bear trap to Bodie to help him capture Dodge (Laysla De Oliveira; Felix Mallard). This confirms the trope of parents’ being overly concerned about people with disabilities interacting with their children. In the episode “Echoes” (1.9), Rufus’ mother (Sherri Saum) shows Kinsey and Tyler Locke (Emilia Jones and Connor Jessup) her memories via the Head Key. Ellie’s recollection of Matheson proves to be too brutal for Rufus to see. He is left behind with Bodie. Later in this episode Rufus is knocked unconscious by Dodge. The last time we see Rufus is when he is transported to the hospital in the season finale, “Crown of Shadows” (1.10). By the end of the first season, Rufus becomes dormant.

Coby Bird as Rufus Whedon in Netflix's Locke & Key
Coby Bird as Rufus Whedon in Netflix’s Locke & Key

Rufus’ TV trajectory may ring true to Coby Bird’s progression from a silent child to a fearless actor. In an interview with Yahoo News, Bird stated that as a kid he did “not have any language.” Later in the series Bird’s character becomes more verbal. Despite Rufus’ on-screen development in becoming a livelier person, his character does not prove to be as salient in assisting the Locke family defeat Dodge as he was in the comics.

The silver lining is that Netflix is hiring nonnormative actors to play characters who have disabilities. Moreover, the show does do what disability advocates such as Tom Shakespeare yearn for in TV shows: casting a person with a disability whose non-normativity is never explained.[ ((Tom Shakespeare calls for nonnormative bodied characters to star in shows that do not primarily address their disability. On the subject of Peter Dinklage starring as Tyrion Lannister in Game of Thrones, Shakespeare states, “I’d like to see restricted growth actors performing in roles, like Tyrion Lannister in Game of Thrones, for which their height is incidental.”))]

Eric Graise, a double amputee, plays Logan Calloway in Netflix’s Locke & Key. The character of Logan Calloway solely exists in the TV show. He is not in the comics. Logan is first seen keying Javi’s (Kevin Alves) car for parking in a handicap parking spot (1.2). In the segment, “Head Games” (1.3), Tyler Locke asks Logan why he is wearing shorts in the Winter. Logan responds by asking Tyler, “My legs look cold to you?”

Eric Graise showcases his dance moves
Eric Graise showcases his dance moves

The show never explains how Logan Calloway lost his legs. Logan’s disability never defines his character. What’s more is that Logan actively rebels against those who dismiss the struggles of people with disabilities; e.g. when he keys (an obvious pun on the show’s title) an inconsiderate asshole’s car. Logan’s humor diffuses Tyler’s anger and Logan is regarded by the other teens as a charismatic leader. While Netflix may have had issues with adapting Rufus for the screen, they succeeded in incorporating a character with a disability who maintains a productive role throughout the first season.

Eric Graise as Logan Calloway in Netflix’s Locke & Key
Eric Graise as Logan Calloway in Netflix’s Locke & Key

Coby Bird and Eric Graise are advocates for disability rights. Graise demands that the entertainment industry “hire diverse. Period. Not just in front of the camera, not just in the writer’s room, but period.” Graise never wants to be called an “inspiration.” He “struggle[s] with that.”

I am not calling Eric Graise an inspiration. But TV programs need more characters like Logan Calloway in Locke & Key for the reason that Logan’s disability is not central to his character. Logan has a real influence on the other characters. He helps them through his leadership. Whereas Rufus’ is not given the same autonomy in the show. The disability themes in the graphic novel should have been instilled in the TV adaptation of the comic series, regardless of the source material’s brutality towards nonnormative people. Netflix’s addition of Logan Calloway seems to work as Logan is not converted from one medium to another. He is a stand-alone character. Adapting characters with disabilities has proven to be problematic. Are their identities lost in the process?

Image Credits:

  1. Locke & Key, a Netflix original series
  2. Coby Bird shares a photo of himself on the set of Netflix’s Locke & Key via his Instagram
  3. Gabriel Rodriguez’s artwork of Rufus Whedon in the comic, Locke & Key
  4. Rufus Whedon speaks with Bodie Locke’s specter in the comic, Locke & Key
  5. Coby Bird as Rufus Whedon in Netflix’s Locke & Key
  6. Eric Graise showcases his dance moves
  7. Eric Graise as Logan Calloway in Netflix’s Locke & Key


Comics ⟷ Media: What’s a Comic Book Fan Worth?
Benjamin Woo / Carleton University

Sea Monkeys

Amazing Live Sea-Monkeys (Caricatures Shown Not Intended to Depict Artemia Salina)

In our age of massively marketed transmedial mega-franchises, fans are routinely portrayed as holders of uniquely valuable symbolic capital. Entertainment reporters cover the Comic Con beat and trawl social media for some indication of whether “the fans” will bestow their blessing on the latest round of blockbusters. As both reliable consumers and enthusiastic brand ambassadors, they are no longer poachers stealing textual pleasures out from under producers’ noses: they are the quarry.

Given the vital role intellectual property derived from comic books plays in Hollywood today, we might well expect their fans to be the most prized game of all. But, while superhero characters are more central to popular culture than perhaps ever before, comic books themselves and the practices that make up comic-book fandom clearly haven’t been mainstream for a long time. As a result, it is not clear how valuable comics fans actually are to the media conglomerates.

When I returned to reading periodical comic books after a long time as a trade-waiter, I was struck by the advertising, which is routinely cut from collected editions. There was so much of it and to so little purpose. I perceived a contradiction between how we talk about the value of fans and how companies talk to us through these promotional paratexts.

According to surveys conducted when comic books were still “new media,” virtually all children read comic books regularly. [ ((Zorbaugh, Harvey. 1944. “The Comics—There They Stand!” Journal of Educational Sociology 18: 197-98.))] Sales peaked in 1952, the year when American comic-book publishers sold a billion issues, [ ((Gabilliet, Jean-Paul. 2010. Of Comics and Men: A Cultural History of American Comic Books. Translated by Bart Beaty and Nick Nguyen. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi.))] and we know anecdotally that a single copy would likely circulate among multiple young readers. This was all prior to marketers’ recognition of children’s influence on household product choices, and now-classic ads for Charles Atlas’s physical culture program, x-ray glasses, and the like point towards an understanding of comic book readers as a massive audience of children who were able to exercise some agency in the marketplace but had very little individual purchasing power—the perfect consumers, in other words, for a packet of freeze-dried brine shrimp and a cheap, plastic aquarium.

Compared with the children of the 1940s and ’50s, the average comic book reader of today is older and has more disposable income. Internal research on DC Comics buyers conducted in 2011 found most were white men between the ages of 25 and 44 who made an above-average income. This ought to be a highly desirable demographic, but an exploratory examination of the ads in one year’s worth of an ordinary DC Comics series suggests otherwise.

New Super-Man

Bernard Chang variant cover to New Super-Man 19 © 2018 DC Comics

New Super-Man (re-titled New Super-Man and the Justice League of China with issue 20) was created and is written by the award-winning cartoonist, former Library of Congress Ambassador for Young People’s Literature and MacArthur “Genius,” Gene Luen Yang, who is best-known for the graphic novel American Born Chinese. The series stars Kong Kenan, a brash Shanghainese teenager who receives powers thanks to a qi-transplant from Superman. He and his compatriots in the Justice League of China eventually break with their government sponsors and strike out as independent heroes.

Although significant as an American comic series foregrounding Asian characters, New Super-Man is unremarkable in terms of sales. I just so happened to have a complete run to hand for this exercise. The January 2018 issue sold just over 10,000 copies to comic book stores according to John Jackson Miller’s monthly sales estimates at Comichron.com. Thirteen other DC series were in that ten to nineteen thousand sales band that month. I counted the pages of advertising, including “editorial” paratexts that were obviously promotional in nature, over the series’ most recent twelve issues (nos. 11–22):


Advertisements in New Super-Man / New Super-Man and the Justice League of China, nos. 11–22, coded by the author (don’t @ me)

There were, in total, 178 pages of advertising, or slightly less than fifteen pages per issue. For context, a typical DC comic book costs US$3.99 (I pay about $6 in Canada after taxes) and contains a twenty-page story. As we can see, the single largest category is the eighty pages of advertising (just over six per issue, on average) devoted to promoting other comic books and graphic novels. Of course, this is almost exclusively for comics published by DC and its imprints—the one exception being an all-ages graphic novel from Scholastic.

Just under two pages in the average issue were used to advertise adaptations of DC Comics characters and properties in other media, including films like Justice League, video games like Injustice 2, and even novelizations of the CW television series The Flash and Supergirl. Slightly less space was devoted to selling character merchandise, including action figures and statuettes produced by DC Collectibles and t-shirts produced under licence by Graffiti Designs. Slightly less again promoted comics-related goods and services such as back-issue dealers, conventions, and the Kubert School; these ads typically use a comic book–inspired aesthetic, and several actually feature art of DC characters.

The second-largest category is a catch-all for “other” products, which comprised forty pages of advertising. Notably, most were for Warner Bros. media products, including TV networks and programs, films, and video games produced by other units within the Warners family. A further nine ads (in red in the figure above) had some kind of tie-in to DC Comics, such as a Snickers campaign featuring an apparent attack by the homicidal Gorilla Grodd that turns out to just be a hangry teenager or a curious Green Lantern / Colonel Sanders team-up comic. Across the twelve issues of New Super-Man / New Super-Man and the Justice League of China I examined, only a handful—a campaign for Steve Jackson Games’ Munchkin and a single page of advertising for Schick razors—weren’t to some extent in-house ads.


Ads for Snickers (left) and Kentucky Fried Chicken (right) featuring DC Comics promotional tie-ins

So, while comic book fans seem to be very useful subjects within the Warner Bros. entertainment conglomerate in much the way Eileen Meehan argued Star Trek fans served as backstop consumers for Paramount, DC does not seem able to convince advertisers of their value. [ ((Meehan, Eileen R. 2000. “Leisure or Labor?: Fan Ethnography and Political Economy.” In Consuming Audiences? Production and Reception in Media Research, edited by Ingunn Hagen and Janet Wasko, 71–92. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press.))] Of course, advertising is in crisis across virtually all media, but it is nonetheless striking that comic book fans, constructed by so much industry discourse as the ideal consumer of convergence culture, garner so little attention from major retailers, car companies, telecommunications providers, and other top advertisers. While much more research is obviously needed on the financial arrangements that result in this situation, it seems to lend credence to the hypothesis that comic book publishers are principally “licence farms” for transmedia IP. [ ((Rogers, Mark C. 1999. “Licensing Farming and the American Comic Book Industry.” International Journal of Comic Art 1 (2): 132–42.))] The comic books themselves are, at the level of corporate strategy, almost an afterthought, and their readers are worth about $3.99.

As this is my final column for Flow this year, I want to take a moment to thank the editors for the invitation to contribute. I’ve really appreciated the opportunity to bring comics studies and media studies into dialogue in this venue. In particular, Maggie Steinhauer has been helpful throughout the process, sending me due-date reminders, catching embarrassing typos, and running down alternate sources for images when they disappeared from the web. 🙏

Image Credits:
1. Amazing Live Sea-Monkeys (Caricatures Shown Not Intended to Depict Artemia Salina),”
2. Bernard Chang variant cover to New Super-Man 19 © 2018 DC Comics
3. Advertisements in New Super-Man / New Super-Man and the Justice League of China, nos. 11–22, coded by the author (don’t @ me) (author’s screen grab)
4. Ads for Snickers (left) and Kentucky Fried Chicken (right) featuring DC Comics promotional tie-ins scanned by the author (scan from author’s collection)

Please feel free to comment.

Comics ⟷ Media: Bam! Pow! Comics Aren’t Just for White Men Anymore!
Benjamin Woo / Carleton University

description of image

Reading the Funnies, Dorothea Lange

In 1942, the War Relocation Authority hired photographer Dorothea Lange to document the internment process following Executive Order 9066. Lange took this picture at the concentration camp in Manzanar, California, where roughly ten thousand Americans of Japanese ancestry – including a hundred orphans in the “Children’s Village” – were imprisoned. It and all the rest of Lange’s pictures were suppressed during the war. They remained largely forgotten in the National Archives for some time afterwards; some have suggested that her camera was too sympathetic or that she showed too much of the conditions in the camps – despite not being allowed to shoot the fences, watchtowers, or soldiers that presided over the camp.

Lange originally captioned the image, “Evacuee boy at this War Relocation Authority center reading the Funnies.” There’s enough polite euphemism here that I feel a little odd pointing out that he’s not actually reading the “funnies” – that is, newspaper comic strips – he’s reading a comic book. More specifically, Boy Comics #5, which was published by Lev Gleason’s Comic House in August 1942.[ (( You can read the whole thing at the Digital Comics Museum. ))] In the photograph, you can make out the shape of a tank and airplanes, signalling that it’s (at least in part) a war comic. The comic is as larded with jingoistic messages as you would expect: several stories pit their plucky young heroes against Nazis and their fifth-column supporters; exhortations to buy war bonds appear throughout; and one of the mottoes printed at the bottom of the page reads, “If you’re a red-blooded American boy—read Boy Comics!” But the black and white image simply doesn’t do it justice. Here it is in colour.

description of image

Cover, Boy Comics #5, by Charles Biro

When I look at Lange’s photograph, I can’t help trying detect some trace of this red-blooded American boy’s response: What did he make of the Little Wise Guys accusing the local butcher of sheltering a “Jap”? How did he feel seeing the likes of Crimebuster, Young Robinhood [sic], Bombshell, and Swoop Storm menaced by buck-toothed, Day-Glo monsters that were supposed to somehow represent him? How did the comic’s celebrations of (white) American boys’ bravery, cleverness, and decency look from inside a prison camp where he was being held for no other crime than his Japanese ethnicity?

I’ve been thinking of this photograph a lot in recent weeks as the field of American comic books appears to have, once again, reached a boiling point around diversity and “identity politics.” Men who call themselves comic book fans and “comic book skeptics” have taken to Twitter and YouTube to complain about changes in superhero comic book publishing that temporarily placed different kinds of bodies in the costumes of characters like Spider-Man, Thor, and Wolverine, and about new series like The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl and Ms. Marvel that seem intended to appeal to … someone different from them. They cheered when a Marvel executive blamed diversity initiatives for declining sales (an interpretation that has been disputed within the comics press and the mainstream media) and when every one of their GLAAD-nominated titles had been cancelled. The watchword is “forced diversity”: They’re not opposed to women, people of colour, or LGBTQ characters, they just don’t want them shoehorned into perfectly good books with perfectly good stories for “political” rather than narrative reasons.[ (( For an account of these events from their point-of-view, see Encyclopedia Dramatica’s ComicGate entry. Note how the site’s hedging as “parody” and “satire” provides cover for its aggressive framings of these events and the people involved. ))]

This is another instance where we need to see “comics” as part of the broader media culture, rather than a corpus of texts defined by the specific properties of their cultural form, and as part of society, rather than subculture insulated from social and political currents. Indeed, at least some participants have explicitly modelled themselves on the Gamergate movement. When it was still white hot, there were already calls for a parallel “Comicsgate” to take comic books back from the social justice warriors. It didn’t quite take off at the time, but that name has begun to recirculate. On the one hand, the moniker seems apt, as the lists of women, people of colour, and self-described liberals described as “contributing to the declining quality” of the comic book industry have been posted online – always with the proviso that this is definitely not a call to harass them. On the other hand, as Inverse’s Eric Francisco points out in a Comicsgate backgrounder, they lack a specific “ethical controversy” to provide the post hoc motivation for their campaign: they “seems to just want less diversity, both in characters and creators, in an attempt to save comics and keep the medium white, male, and familiar. That’s it.”

description of image

Preamble to the Comicsgate Blacklist Bestiary

In my latest book, Getting a Life: The Social Worlds of Geek Culture, I discuss how widely circulating discourses about authorship, gender, and play contribute to the embrace of what Michael Kimmel calls “aggrieved entitlement” within some corners of geek culture. These discourses are not inherently toxic, but they have shaped the emotional texture of this specific politics of white masculinity:

  • First, many of the fan communities composing geek culture remain highly invested in particular conceptions of authorship. They are, in Herbert J. Gans’s terms, a creator-oriented public of popular culture. Interviewees frequently deployed ways of thinking and speaking that identify with authors, and the confidence with which the Comicsgaters deputize themselves to police the meaning of characters and who they’re for relates to this creator-orientation.
  • Second, I found a lot of gender talk. Some of it was of the “fake geek girl” variety, but more of it focused on stereotypes about “nagging” wives and girlfriends. Many men spoke specifically of the women in their lives forcing them to get rid of collections and spend less time engaged in their hobbies. In this way, women were discursively constructed as a constraint on their free time.
  • Third, the wide-ranging use of irony and play obfuscates the intent and effects of speech acts. Moreover, the playful “troll mask” serves to insulate their self-concept by placing these activities within a “magic circle” separate from their “real” lives and selves.

In the last year or so, Gamergate and other troubles within geek culture have been seen as an early warning – missed by too many of us – of the rise of the authoritarian alt-right in the United States and other western nations. Comparing the nascent Comicsgate community with its analogues in other fields is an opportunity to investigate what conditions determine how these controversies work themselves out. Without minimizing the harms experienced by specific targeted creators and critics, why hasn’t the comics version taken off to the same degree as Gamergate, yet refuses to burn out? Might it be, for instance, related to the demographic composition of the comics workforce? Or to the way that publishers are caught in between a business model that privileges graphic novels and trade paperbacks that circulate in trade bookstores and libraries and one that remains tethered to the “floppy” periodical format and its basically subcultural audience?

Let’s be crystal clear. Harassment and bullying are wrong. Racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia are wrong. I’m not trying to empathize with the Skeptics. My attempts to understand them are more selfish – as Pierre Bourdieu was fond of saying, “sociology is a martial art, a means of self-defense.” But, importantly, they’re not only wrong but also incorrect. In a paper delivered at this year’s International Comic Arts Forum, Aaron Kashtan pointed to the “direct-market centrism” that blinds the Injustice League to the full breadth of what’s happening in comics today. And of course any media critic worth their salt knows that culture and politics are always intertwined. That boy in Manzanar certainly didn’t have the luxury of believing comic books didn’t have an agenda.

Image Credits:
1. Reading the Funnies, Dorothea Lange
2. Cover, Boy Comics #5, by Charles Biro
3. Preamble to the Comicsgate Blacklist Bestiary

Please feel free to comment.

Comics ↔ Media: Comics Aren’t Literature, and That’s Fine
Benjamin Woo / Carleton University

Still from Adventures of Superman

Still from Adventures from Superman TV series, (1952-1958)

As a life-long reader of superhero comic books, I have an abiding belief in the importance of origin stories.

When I was an undergraduate student, I was told a story about the history of my field—in Canada, at least. It was a story of how a tradition of inquiry based in fandom became institutionalized in universities when faculty in English departments began to grapple with the cultural forms that were competing for their students’ attention. First came the cinema, and then the panoply of newly “new media”: television, video games, web-based video, social media, and so on.

This origin story is not unlike that of comics studies. [ ((Bart Beaty, introduction, IN FOCUS: Comics Studies: 50 Years After Film Studies, Cinema Journal 50, no. 3 (2011): 106–10. For some resources towards an alternative genealogy, see Matthew Smith and Randy Duncan, eds., The Secret Origins of Comics Studies (New York: Routledge, 2017).))] It, too, has its robust tradition of fan scholarship. And it too has been deeply shaped by its association with literature departments, but, notwithstanding the comics studies groups within the Society for Cinema and Media Studies and International Association for Media and Communication Research and the growth of standalone learned societies like the Comics Studies Association and the Canadian Society for the Study of Comics, it remains essentially a branch of literary studies. Moreover, because of their relatively marginal position within the more established discipline, many comics scholars (especially, students in programs that lack a deep bench of supervisors working in popular literatures) end up reproducing literary studies’ most conservative paradigms, staking a claim for comics’ inherent quality to justify their place in a university classroom or scholarly journal. [ ((Bart Beaty and Benjamin Woo, The Greatest Comic Book of All Time: Symbolic Capital and the Field of American Comic Books (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016).))]

I fear that this equation of aesthetic with scholarly value impoverishes the field at precisely the time when it needs to be its gutsiest. This is not a time for retreat into media-specific silos. So, as Flow goes through a similar process of re-orientation, I want to use my columns this year to reflect on the relationship between comics studies and media studies, more generally: What would it mean to consider comics as media, and what might we gain by drawing comics studies and media studies into closer alignment?

Death and Life of Superman

Ad for novelization of The Death and Life of Superman

The gentrifying labels of “graphic novels” and “graphic narrative” seek to re-shape comics into plausible texts for literary study. But, as media and as culture, they quickly overflow the container of the literary text. [ ((Christopher Pizzino, Arresting Development: Comics at the Boundary of Literature (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2016); Andrew Hoberek, “Coda: After Watchmen” in Considering Watchmen: Poetics, Property, Politics, 159–83 (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2014).))]

Literature is, perhaps first and foremost, the product of an author, and authorship remains a key organizing concept. Comics almost systematically frustrates this. Most comics have been the product of creative teams of writers and pencillers and inkers and colorists and letterers, to say nothing of the editorial, production and business staff who make publishing a comic book possible. Some traditions of cartooning do offer figures that can be taken for authors or auteurs. Someone who both writes and draws their comics—a Spiegelman or Bechdel, for instance—seems to exert the level of autonomy and control we demand of a literary author. Even then, the literary framing tends to focus scholars’ attention on the words they write more than the pictures they draw or the myriad interrelations of text and image in space.

description of image

Cover, Superman Salutes the Bicentennial (DC Comics, 1976)

In doing this work, most comics creators have been more oriented to the market and audience demand than the ideal-typical literary author is imagined to be. In Bourdieusian terms, comics as a whole lies closer to the heteronomous pole than the autonomous one. Grappling with this means accounting for seriality, circulation, and the fact that most comics are not remarkable or even all that good. We need to look not only at the few, precious pearls but also the big pile of empty oyster shells. Dale Jacobs’s current project to analyze every comic book published in America during the bicentennial year of 1976, the critic Douglas Wolk’s effort to read every Marvel comic book, and the What Were Comics? project are all attempts at a different mode of reading and a different method for apprehending comics as eighty years of output from a cultural industry.

But the comic book industry is not exactly like other publishing industries, and it would be a mistake to think its products are “books” or “magazines.” Ian Gordon’s recent book on Superman, for instance, raises questions about just what Superman is. Gordon eventually settles on the term “icon” to describe the bundle of symbols, characters, settings, narrative devices, and themes brought together under the sign of a big red S. [ ((Ian Gordon, Superman: The Persistence of an American Icon (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2017).))] If the concept of transmedia represents a network of adaptations in which no text has the privileged status of “original,” then comics were transmedia avant la lettre. Their publishers are in the business of maintaining a database of narrative and aesthetic elements that can be endlessly recompiled into new media products: one Harley Quinn for tween girls and another for allegedly grown men appearing across a range of platforms. [ ((Adam Arvidsson, Brands: Meaning and Value in Media Culture (New York: Routledge, 2006); Hiroki Azuma, Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals, trans. Jonathan E. Abel and Shion Kono (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009).))]

description of image

“Superman Merchandise, 1979” uploaded to Flickr by Tom Simpson

Scholars have pointed to the increased articulation between the comic book industry and Hollywood in the form of adaptations of superhero comic-book franchises. [ ((See, e.g., Liam Burke, The Comic Book Film Adaptation: Exploring Modern Hollywood’s Leading Genre (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2015); Blair Davis, Movie Comics: Page to Screen / Screen to Page (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2017); Alisa Perren and Laura Felschow, “The Bigger Picture: Drawing Intersections Between Comics, Fan, and Industry Studies,” in The Routledge Companion to Media Fandom, eds. Melissa A. Click and Suzanne Scott (New York: Routledge, 2017).))] There is undoubtedly something to this, but histories of early comic art show this is hardly a new phenomenon. [ ((Jared Gardner, Projections: Comics and the History of Twenty-First Century Storytelling (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2012); Ian Gordon, Comic Strips and Consumer Culture, 1890–1945 (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1998).))] Within two years of Superman’s debut, for example, the company that would become DC Comics had already established Superman, Inc. (later known as the Licensing Corporation of America) to manage its valuable intellectual properties, and its business manager Jack Liebowitz was one of the architects of the Warner Communications conglomerate. [ ((Gordon, Superman, 106, 9.))] “Comics” don’t stop at the edge of the page; we have to follow the transmedial object as it spreads promiscuously through our media culture.

In “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History,” Michel Foucault warns that a focus on origin stories makes for a bad philosophy of history. The comics-as-literature discourse provided comics studies a point of departure but it can’t remain our primary frame of reference. After all, comics isn’t a genre of literature.

Comics is a cultural form that circulates through a range of media (newspaper strips, periodicals, codex books, and web sites, apps and social media) and enrolls various publics—creators, industrial actors, retailers, critics and scholars, audiences and fans, re-mediators and adaptors—into specific media-oriented practices. Consequently, we’ll need a big and truly interdisciplinary toolkit to apprehend it.

Image Credits:
1. Still from Adventures from Superman TV series, (1952-1958).
2. Ad for novelization of The Death and Life of Superman.
3. Cover, Superman Salutes the Bicentennial (DC Comics, 1976).
4. “Superman merchandise, 1979” uploaded to Flickr by Tom Simpson.

Please feel free to comment.

Stasis, Change, and Televisual Comic Book Film Franchising
Derek Johnson / University of Wisconsin-Madison

The “televisualization” of the comic book film.
Looking back at the year 2014, Mark Harris of the sports and pop culture blog Grantland recently characterized Hollywood as haunted by superheroes, unable to break its cyclical dependence on formulaic sequels even as that franchising threatens to “poop all over everything.” Such overwrought, doomsday reflection on the “toxic” and “annihilating” creative atmosphere within the blockbuster-driven film industry is anything but novel. Over at Antenna, Brad Schauer has explored the ways in which critics lamenting the supposed end of narrative in Hollywood position themselves as the “last bastion” of good taste in opposition to the audiences of comic book films, and his research more broadly has revealed the long history by which science fiction and other franchise blockbusters have been dismissed by critics. So I’d add very little here to merely take Harris to task for keeping that story running. But where Harris does make an extremely valuable contribution to our understanding of contemporary Hollywood—in need of both further exploration and further critique of the kind Schauer might call for—is in his realization that the contemporary comic book blockbuster has given film an increasingly televisual quality.

Of greatest concern to Harris about the film industry of 2014 is the way that it replicated itself into 2015 and beyond, as made most tangibly clear by the carefully planned futures of the DC Comics and Marvel Comics film franchises. Each company made spectacular announcements throughout the year revealing the titles of dozens of comic book films to be produced by the end of the decade. As Harris writes, the film industry of 2014 is all about “creating a sense of anticipation in its target audience that is so heightened, so nurtured, and so constant that moviegoers are effectively distracted from how infrequently their expectations are actually satisfied. Movies are no longer about the thing; they’re about the next thing, the tease, the Easter egg, the post-credit sequence, the promise of a future at which the moment we’re in can only hint.” Despite his doom and gloom, Harris provides here an extremely useful perspective on narrative aesthetics in contemporary media franchising. Much as I have argued that media franchising applies the logic of episodic production long central to US television to a host of other entertainment industries, Harris conceptualizes this promise and anticipation of the future as a televisionification of blockbuster film. “TV knows how to keep people coming back, which is its job, every day and every week, and is a quality that, above all others, the people who finance movies would dearly love to poach,” Harris writes. While the specific episodic logics that have long been a part of comic book form can be seen to have their own transformational effects on television (as argued by Alisa Perren), Harris’ insight encourages us to look in parallel to television studies to understand what is happening in the industrial embrace of the comic book film.

Marvel film slate
The Marvel film slate through 2018 is announced.
While Harris’ invocation of television seems meant to evoke a sense of monotonous, economically determined, illegitimate, and above all risk-averse form of cultural production to justify his claims about creative bankruptcy, television scholars might consider the case of comic book film franchising with somewhat more ambivalence. Yes, we have long known that episodic television is an especially risk averse and particularly repetitive cultural form. Yet TV scholars like Jeff Sconce have considered what it might mean to be creative within that context. Thinking about the challenges of ongoing, episodic production and above all the need to generate episodic difference amid the reuse of series and generic formula, Sconce argues that the “true art in the algebra of televisual repetition is not the formula but the unique integers plugged into the equation.” ((Jeffrey Sconce, “What If: Charting Television’s New Textual Boundaries.” Television After TV: Essays on a Medium in Transition (eds. Lynn Spiegel and Jan Olsson, pp. 93-112. Durham: Duke University Press, 2004), 105.)) In this way, television studies can prompt us to think about franchised creativity as something that comes as much in response to repetition as something annihilated by it. Creativity in that sense might be a little less celebrated and magical, and instead a more negotiated struggle through which formula support both stasis and change at the same time.

Harris’ essay seems to focus only on stasis. He looks at the production slate for Marvel Studios and sees the extension of a 2014 formula (itself an extension of what’s proven successful in years past) to the next several years of blockbuster filmmaking through 2020. He sees the replication of that formula as a reason to be concerned for all “the movies that aren’t getting made.” And he’s right. The Marvel films are nothing if not formulaic, and the crowding of the blockbuster market by comic book films like here https://grademiners.com/dissertation-chapters —to say nothing of what blockbuster emphasis in general means for quieter independent projects and untested ideas—is a concern about diversity of voice and perspective that cannot be waved away by a conversation about the art of repetition. But Harris’ invocation of television means we have to think about the unique integers demanded by repetition too.

DC slate
The DC Comics film release line-up through 2020.
Of course Harris is willing to admit that with the huge number of comic book films being
produced, the odds are that one or two “good” movies will “sprout up.” Instead of looking at such instances as anomalies in an otherwise homogeneous sea of carefully managed production, though, we might think about them as important parts of franchising logic—the variance and “unique integers” necessary to keep the formula fresh and, especially, to adapt that formula to new audiences and tastes. More than anything, Harris seems troubled by the “Stalinist” way studios have planned out the road to 2020, introducing one new comic book hero or property after another to be run through the same blockbuster franchise formula. For DC, Superman vs. Batman will lead to Suicide Squad and Wonder Woman; for Marvel, Avengers: Age of Ultron will lead to Ant-Man and Captain Marvel. Yet there’s something permitted here in the plugging of all these different integers into the same formula that earlier moments in the franchising of comic book films did not. The promise of a future represented by Grademiners.com these extended production slates depends on a commitment to gradual, cumulative narrative change and the exploration of new characters to replace the old (no more rebooting in order to tell the exact same story again, a la Sony’s Spider-Man film franchise; though the breaking news that Sony will allow Marvel to reunite Spider-Man and The Avengers suggests one last reboot may be required there before Marvel commits to integrating the character in their long-term, future-thinking strategy). That promise of cumulative development may ultimately go undelivered, but it imagines Hollywood franchise filmmaking as something ideally balancing formulaic stasis with iterative dynamism.

Captain Marvel
Carol Danvers, also known as Captain Marvel, is set to make her big-screen debut in 2018.
While glacial, these dynamic shifts have political importance too. How might the stability of the formula allow a broader range of experimentation in imagining power and who gets to wield it in these popular fantasies? Even if formulaic, both Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel represent a shift in industrial logic as to whom the subjects and audiences of blockbuster franchising might include. Make no mistake—this is a shift based in market analysis and calculated risk assessment, but nevertheless one that should be recognized as something other than simply more of the same. Unfolding over time across a decade of industry strategy, franchising is a site where we can see glacial changes in corporate culture, logics, and lore. As Joss Whedon so eloquently quipped in describing Marvel’s post-Guardians of the Galaxy confidence in the extension of its franchise formula, “If a raccoon can carry a movie, then they believe maybe even a woman can.”

Wonder Woman
A publicity still for Wonder Woman, directed by Michelle MacLaren and slated for a 2017 release.
With this in mind, my point is not that we should celebrate Marvel for offering change in the most cynical, managed, and risk averse way possible. Instead, it is to point out that the persistent presence of almost imperceptible change helps us put in new perspective the concerns that Harris and others have about the movies that aren’t getting made. Because franchise formulas do change, they can be applied to new markets and new audiences. Five years ago, moviegoers had to look well outside of Marvel’s offerings to find strong female heroes at the center of a film narrative; five years from now, strong female heroes dissertation help will have become one of the many unique integers plugged into the Marvel formula, and that formula may have become the most profitable, risk averse place for that kind of content. If successful, Captain Marvel and Wonder Woman may create a larger market for fantasy narratives focused on women (and hopefully made by women), but at the same time they may cement the overall Marvel film franchise as a one-size-fits-all formula that can be adjusted to suit all audiences (and producers). We might similarly think of the Ghostbusters franchise as one of many new potential containers for comedians like Kristin Wiig and Melissa McCarthy. Our critical concern for media franchising, therefore, should take a page from television studies (and in this case, feminist television studies) to be equally attuned to formulaic mutability as the potential for creative stasis.

Image Credits:

1. The “televisualization” of the comic book film.
2. The Marvel film slate through 2018 is announced.
3. The DC Comics film release line-up through 2020.
4. Carol Danvers, also known as Captain Marvel, is set to make her big-screen debut in 2018.
5. A publicity still for Wonder Woman, directed by Michelle MacLaren and slated for a 2017 release.

Please feel free to comment.

Comics to Film (And Halfway Back Again): A DVD Essay

by: Drew Morton / UCLA




Being an avid reader of comic books and graphic novels and taking a closer look at cinematic adaptations of such materials, two aspects struck me like a good old Superman punch to the face. First, when and how had comic book adaptations began to take on the aesthetics of its source? Looking back at the 70s and 80s, most specifically Superman (1978) and Batman (1989), adaptations commonly took the source material (Bruce Wayne=Batman, rich millionaire, dark side, parents killed by criminal) while leaving the formal characteristics (panels, splash pages, spatial direction) at the wayside. Contrast these adaptations to films like Sin City (2005) and 300 (2007), both of which have been touted as being the cinematic equivalent to the original, both in terms of style and content.

Secondly, why had few scholars within cinema and media studies taken a closer look at comics? As Erwin Panofsky once wrote, “The comic strips–a most important root of cinematic art.” Regardless of this similarity, aside from pieces comparing comic books to storyboards and discussions of fan culture, critical study of the medium has almost exclusively come from workers within the industry: Art Spiegelman toured various college campuses on a lecture tour entitled “Comix 101,” graphic artist Scott McCloud published two books of theory between 1993 and 2000, and Chris Ware guest edited a volume of Timothy McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern focusing solely on graphic art in 2004. Are comic books so similar to storyboards and film that they can be dismissed? Taking a cue from Art Spiegelman who quipped “Comics are not storyboards for movies at their best,” I would argue not.



I do not believe this oversight stems from an issue of high/low culture but rather the a lack of a theoretical vocabulary. After all, it’s not that comics have been ignored by those within the academy. Aside from the fan studies and comics as storyboards, Henry Jenkins has looked extensively at comic books as a form of trans-media storytelling and the last three annual Society of Cinema and Media Studies conferences have all featured panels regarding comic books. No, this isn’t an issue of high/low culture or complete ignorance but rather a redirection.

Taking these two thoughts, I began working on a paper for a seminar on media convergence I was enrolled in. During this time, I was also enrolled in a workshop with the end goal of producing a DVD essay. I had begun by segregating the two pieces. While I was working on the comic book adaptation paper for the convergence seminar, the DVD essay was going to be my visual crutch for my SCMS paper on American independent film and Steven Soderbergh.

However, this is not the path this project ended up on. My comic book paper was becoming far too visual to just throw a couple of still images into the blocks of text and, conversely, my indie film essay was perfectly fine on paper. Moreover, while I was researching the comic book project, I came across Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, which I had been familiar with but never completely engulfed myself in. I found McCloud’s approach, to ground a working theory of comic books into the medium itself, the main source of inspiration, creating a large, explosive, thought bubble over my head.

As the project progressed, I realized that it would be ideal if the two projects would supplement one another. The visuals of the DVD could fully exemplify what I was attempting to describe, rather poorly, on paper while the analysis of the paper could elaborate on a utility belt full of topics that time and technological constraints had forced me to cast aside in favor of the viewer’s ability to audibly sort through much of the theory and quirks of the comic book medium (hence my attempt to make the visuals of the essay re-enforce the audio track). While both pieces function rather well on their own after extensive re-working, they both buckle to the constraints of their respective mediums, which one can only expect.

After the essay was completed, I had a lively discussion with my cohort (fellow Flow-ite Adam Fish included) regarding the reception of such pieces. While much of this discussion circled around issues of fair use, many of us shared the lament that, aside from an interactive conference paper, there lacks a venue for visual essays. While media studies publications often pride themselves at being ahead of the curve by diving into popular culture and new technologies, the only magazine to come out with a DVD of visual essays and short films (to my knowledge) has been Wholphin, the quarterly DVD magazine from Dave Eggers and the crew at McSweeney’s. However, if YouTube and the nickelodeons of the internet have shown us anything it is that there is a outlet for anything: be it Channel 101’s Yacht Rock or the video diaries from Iraqi soldiers. Why shouldn’t those within cinema and media studies throw their hats into the A/V ring as well?

While such a format may be dismissed on the grounds that only technophiles are able to grapple with the interfaces of programs like Adobe Premiere and Final Cut Pro, the technology, while frustrating at times, isn’t that fickle. Moreover, one could easily use iMovie or the standard Windows equivalent to cut together an essay. The only advantage to using a higher-end product lies in the bells and whistles and there volumes of “How-To” guides filling bookshelves at Borders that explain how to master these techniques much more eloquently than yours truly.

All aspects considered, perhaps the most beneficial is that by constructing visual essays, cinema and media studies scholars dip their hands into processes they think and write so much about. Why should theory and criticism be separate from filmmaking? As Sergi Eisenstein and Jean-Luc Godard have demonstrated, there is much to gain from the pairing of theory and praxis.

Useful Links:
1. Download Free Golden Age Comics
2. IGN: “300 in Film.”
3. IGN: “Best & Worst Comic Book Movies.”
4. IGN: “Building the Ultimate Bookshelf.”
5. Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: “Comics Jump to the Screen.”
6. Scott McCloud’s Webpage
7. Time Magazine’s Comix
8. UWM Post: “High and Low.”
9. Wholphin
10. Winsor McCay’s “Little Nemo” Short

Useful Image Links:
1. 300
2. American Splendor
3. Batman Animated
4. Hulk
5. Sin City
6. Superman Returns

Image Credits:
1. Superman
2. Catwoman

Please feel free to comment.