December 10, 2007
"We Had So Many Stories to Tell": The Heroes Comics as Transmedia Storytelling

Here is a post that I put up on my blog earlier this month that I thought might be of particular interest to C3 readers, especially in light of the recent Futures of Entertainment 2 conference:

"We had so many stories to tell and there was only so much room in the TV show -- so we decided that we could tell these alternative stories in the comics. The stories could be deeper, broader and reveal more secrets about our characters. It was also a way to tell stories that would be otherwise unproduceable on our show." -- Aron Eli Coleite and Joe Pokaski on the Heroes comics.

From time to time, I have used my blog to point towards key steps in the evolution of what I have been calling transmedia storytelling. For a good overview of the concept, check out my Transmedia Storytelling 101 post. Here's part of my definition:

Transmedia storytelling represents a process where integral elements of a fiction get dispersed systematically across multiple delivery channels for the purpose of creating a unified and coordinated entertainment experience. Ideally, each medium makes it own unique contribution to the unfolding of the story. So, for example, in The Matrix franchise, key bits of information are conveyed through three live action films, a series of animated shorts, two collections of comic book stories, and several video games. There is no one single source or ur-text where one can turn to gain all of the information needed to comprehend the Matrix universe.

This concept has been more fully developed through a series of recent CMS thesis, which you can access on line: Ivan Askwith discusses Lost as an example of how media extensions can be used to enhance audience engagement; Geoffrey Long discusses the aesthetics of transmedia entertainment with a focus on the Jim Henson corporation; Sam Ford explores how transmedia storytelling might expand the reach of contemporary soap operas; and Alec Austin develops an approach to genre conventions which helps to explain the interplay of different elements in a transmedia system.

My thoughts have returned to transmedia entertainment having recently read the graphic novel edition of the first season's comics for Heroes, which comes with a wonderful Alex Ross cover, and which includes an interesting conversation between Executive Producer Jeph Loeb and series writers Aron Eli Coleite and Joe Pkaski about the impulses which led them to use comics to build out the world of Heroes on the web. This post is also inspired by the conversation which I had with Heroes producers Jesse Alexander and Mark Warshaw at the MIT Communications Forum a few weeks ago. The webcast version of that exchange can not be found on the web and includes rich discussions of how Heroes fits within larger industry trends that stress "engagement" rather than "appointment" television.

Comics have emerged as a key vehicle for constructing transmedia narratives -- in part because they cost less to produce and are thus lower risk than developing games or filming additional material. (See my discussion of the contributions of comics to the Matrix franchise in Convergence Culture.) So, in the past year alone, we've seen Joss Whedon turn to comics to create a "8th season" of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, we've seen Supernatural generate comics designed to flesh out some of the backstory of the Winchester brothers, and we've seen Battlestar Galactica use comics to fill in the gaps between seasons in the series. Of these, however, Heroes was the only series to be releasing comics on a weekly basis via the web to coincide with the rolling out of the series episodes, resulting in comics that are much more fully integrated into the flow of the series narrative. Indeed, I felt a bit at a disadvantage reading these stories in a book form without reviewing the series episodes on DVD at the same time.

Many of us feel that the Matrix franchise took the concept of transmedia storytelling too far, too fast, to achieve reasonable embrace from a mass viewership. There were gaping holes in The Matrix films which could only be filled if you had spent time with the comics, the game, and the anime. And the production company had not done an adequate job in educating the public about the integral role of these other media channels to the experience as a whole. I hear this again and again from people who read Convergence Culture: they liked the first Matrix film but were turned off by the sequels because they didn't seem to add up to anything and they had no idea that most of these others series related materials existed.

In the interview about the comics, Coleite and Pokaski took a very different tactic:

Our first rule going in was that you didn't have to read the comic to enjoy the show, but it created an enhanced experience if you did. On the other side, we wanted people who did watch the show and read the comic to feel rewarded -- that they were taking part of something larger and give them real emotional and important stories -- not just fluff or filler.

And of course, the presence of the comics are signaled within the television series itself. By the start of the second episode, we've seen Hiro reading 9th Wonders comics, which, within the fiction, is produced by Isaac Mendez, and learn that the comics may hold a key for understanding what's happening. Hiro repeatedly consults the comics to discover what he needs to do next and to make sense of his mission, much as other characters are studying Issac's paintings to foretell and hopefully escape their fates.

And of course, there's such a clear fit between comics and the content of Heroes that it would be a crying shame if they had not sought to integrate comics into the series in some way. Yet, if Heroes draws upon the superhero medium, it does not fit within the mainstream of that genre, at least as it is currently constituted within the comics marketplace. Heroes pushes into a darker, more psychologically nuanced, more "realistic" and less fantastical version of the genre which is much more likely to be published by Image or Dark Horse or Vertigo or Wildstorm than by DC and Marvel's main flagship series. Jeph Loeb (the series producer) and Tim Sale (the comics artist who creates Issac's paintings) have worked for both DC and Marvel, but in that work, they have combined their distinctive look and themes with mainstream characters like Batman, Superman, or Spider-Man. It's amusing that DC published the Heroes graphic novel when they would almost certainly have turned down Heroes as a comics series if there hadn't been a successful television series (not to mention some high powered artists and writers attached.)

While there are certainly some segments in the anthology of Heroes stories which do not rise above "fluff or filler," most of the stories do achieve some degree of emotional impact -- at least for those of us who are already invested in the characters -- and in that sense, the stories function very much like very good fan fiction -- fleshing out secondary characters, filling in back story, and providing "missing scenes" which round out the action depicted on the screen. The stories are told in what the authors call a "Haiku style" -- that is to say, "short and purposeful, every panel meaning something", offering complex stories in five page installments. Essentially, the writers broke down the pages of a monthly comic into a series of shorter chunks and rolled a chunk out every week as opposed to delivering the whole each month. In some cases, the story is completed in five pages, like the back of the book segments in a classic superhero comic, and in other cases, the stories get serialized over multiple installments. As you read through this first volume, you can see the authors experiment with the benefits of longer or shorter chunks of narrative and the center of gravity moves towards greater serialization as this volume continues.

Early on, they clearly saw the stories as providing a bit more character development given the sheer number of new characters they were introducing at the launch of an ensemble cast serial drama. For example, the first story, "Monsters," fleshes out the relationship between Mohinder and his father: disturbed by folktales about Kali, Mohinder seeks explaination from his father, who tells him "the world is an amazing place, Mohinder, but there's no such thing as monsters." And the boy comes to trust his father's scientific perspective. The man develops greater doubts as his confronts the aftermath of his father's death in the course of a story which would have offered fans their first hint of "Sylar." The artwork offers a vivid representation of the competing world views of science and religion which would be hard to convey through most other media, offering competing and yet simultaneously visible representations of the same event. The second story, "The Crane," takes us back to Japan, where we learn about Hiro's relationship to his grandfather, who had survived Hiroshima, providing a vivid link between his culture's past and the explosion which he must work all season to prevent. And the third, "Trial by Fire," shows Nathan Petrelli deploying his powers to rescue a woman from a burning building, hinting at a heroic side of a character who is consistently depicted as self-centered on the series.

There are some key scenes which overlap between the comics and the television series, enough that we can see how the parts fit together, but for the most part, the comics stories take us different places and tell us different things. Yet, the stories reflect back on what takes place in the series at a much deeper level than say, the Star Trek comics I read as a boy, which shared characters but no real plot points with the aired episodes. In the old model, the comics stories weren't allowed to change anything meaningful about the relationships in the series and thus, the stories remained relatively shallow in terms of their implications for the characters. Here, because the writing of the comics is closely coordinated with the writing of the series, the comics are much more interwoven into the unfolding of character information on the aired episodes. In some cases, they hint at things that television viewers may not discover until later in the run of the series, offering a degree of foreshadowing. In other cases, they provided deeper insights into character's motivations in key scenes, much like a flashback might function in a traditional screen narrative. In effect, the author's off-load certain aspects of narrative construction into this alternative medium, offering a richer experience to those who venture there.

Several of the stories, in true superhero comic fashion, show us how characters, such as Parkman and Isaac, discover their powers. "Hell's Angel" shows us the moment when H.R.G. first adopted Claire, rescuing her from the rubble of a burning building, constituting a classic example of the kind of "missing scene" which is so often left for fans to create on their own. It was clear from my time with Alexander and Warshaw a few weeks ago that they were both fans, who shared our communities love for back story and character development and fascination with an ever-expanding and richly-detailed fictional world.

As the series unfolds, the comics provided additional backstory, suggesting things about the older generation's pasts which have still not been fully revealed on the air, despite a growing focus on the inter-generational drama in Season 2. So, for example, Mark Warshaw's multipart "War Buddies" series shows us the first meeting between the Petrelli patriarch and Linderman during the Vietnam War. The story contributes a great deal to our understanding of these two key characters who had until that point remained largely in the shadows.

The biggest revelation to those who have only watched the series is how central the figure of Hanna Gitelman ("Wireless") is to the comics. I scarcely remember the character from the aired episodes, to be honest, but she emerges here as perhaps the most compelling character, with a good third of the comics devoted to fleshing out who she is, where she comes from, what her powers are, and how she relates to H.R.G. Gitelman's ability to access and navigate across media makes her an ideal personification for the series's own transmedia impulses and she becomes a role model for consumers who are being asked to connect together meaningful bits of information across multiple sources in order to construct a fuller picture of what's going on here. In the interview, the authors stress that they can show things in comics -- "Fire. Space. Polar Ice Caps. Jungles of Africa. Battles with Indian gods and confrontations with Australian rock formations" which would be hard to film, if not prohibitively expensive for a television series. As they exclaim, "there is no limit in this format" and so clearly they wanted a character they could totally own and do with what they wanted. Her presence on the television series might be read as a reward for the comic's readers who go into such scenes with added expertise, though the character remains marginal enough to the series that it doesn't really matter to most viewers if they don't know that her grandmother was a resistance fighter in Germany during World War II, that her mother was a fighter pilot in the Israeli military, or that Hanna was raised in an orphanage in Tel Aviv.

Within the industry discourse, such experiments in transmedia extension are still primarily understood through a language of "promotion." Indeed, this issue of what constitutes new content and what is purely promotional is at the heart of the current Writers' Strike in Hollywood. These comics make a real creative contribution to our experience of Heroes, enhancing our intitial encounters with these characters, providing core aspects of backstory throughout, and even developing characters who live more on the comics page than they do on the screen. We are still groping to find an aesthetic language to describe and evaluate these kinds of stories; this needs to be understood by all involved as an artistic experiment, an attempt to understand how storytellers can more fully exploit the potentials of convergence culture.

For more background, Gamasutra offers a good summary of the transmedia panel at Futures of Entertainment 2, which featured not only Jesse Alexander from Heroes but also Danny Bilson, producer of games, comics, films, television series, and starlets, Jeff Gomez from Starlight Runner, and Gordon Tichell from Walden Media, producer of the Narnia films.

Jason Mittell's reflections on Heroes in the aftermath of the MIT Communications Forum and Futures of Entertainment events sparked some interesting comments from Heroes creator Tim Kring.