Henry Jenkins: This special issue of Journal of Media Literacy focuses around “storytelling” and learning across media. Both of us write about a broad array of different media in our work, often making juxtapositions between past and present, high and low. As a way of introducing what we do, it might be helpful to explore what drives these explorations. How would you sum up some of the core themes that have animated your work through the years? How important have stories and storytelling been to your interest in media? What other uses of media recur as you look across the range of topics you have written about?
I have written about a broad range of popular media over the 30 plus years of my career -- everything from the ways vaudeville influenced film comedy (Jenkins, 1992) to the storytelling potential of video games (Jenkins, 2004) to the melodramatic politics of professional wrestling (Jenkins, 1997) to the ways that our culture’s preoccupation with “stuff” shape contemporary graphic novels (Jenkins, 2020). My work is motivated by several core questions.
First, I am interested in the aesthetics of forms of culture that are often not ascribed with artistic intention or value -- what makes for a good wrestling performance, say, or how do we look at the issue of media violence differently if we see video games as a medium capable of exploring ethical issues (Jenkins, 2006). Our culture’s tendency to dismiss popular culture (or to read it on high culture terms) cuts us off as teachers and academics from forms of expression and experiences that are valued by our students. So, we need to develop frameworks that allow us to distinguish between good and bad works of popular media and respect the goals and traditions of their creators and the intelligence of their audiences.
Angela Ndalianis is Director of the Centre for Transformative Media Technologies at Swinburne University. Her research focuses on entertainment media (film, TV, comics, theme parks), their histories, and how technologies impact on embodiment, the senses and perception. Her expertise also extends to the transhistorical and transcultural manifestation of the baroque as a perceptual regime driven by technological innovation.
Henry Jenkins is the Provost’s Professor of Communication, Journalism, Cinematic Art and Education at the University of Southern California and the founder and former director of the MIT Comparative Media Studies Program. He is the author/editor of more than 17 books on various aspects of media and popular culture.
Second, I am interested in the tension across many popular forms between telling stories and doing something else -- call it spectacle, world-building, performance, gags, sensation, etc. -- which often accounts for the pleasure audiences take in such works. So, to talk about my most recent book, Comics and Stuff, my interest is in what constitutes meaningful mise-en-scène in graphic novels. We might start with a basic observation: many comics artists cram their frames with lots of everyday objects which are lovingly and painstakingly drawn even though there is little to no economic incentive for them to do so. In many cases, these panels block the forward flow of the story -- they invite us to stop and scan the frame and to pay attention to virtuosity. In some cases, these images encourage us to flip back and forth across the book to compare motifs. Comics historians often value the work of Winsor McCay, an early comic strip artist who found imaginative and inventive ways to break a represented action down into panels through framing. He’s seen as helping to establish the basic building blocks of modern American comics.
But I am interested in the work of his contemporary, Richard Outcault, whose comics consisted of a single full-page panel where many things are taking place simultaneously.
He was trying to capture the intensity of urban life where different groups of people doing very different things bump up against each other. Outcault’s demand that we pay close attention to everything in the frame shaped the evolution of comics (the splash page) almost as much as McCay’s efforts. Some later comics creators, such as Will Eisner, wanted to control the reader’s attention so they pay attention to only narratively salient elements (Jenkins, 2017) where Outcault’s influence comes in encouraging us to explore the comics page on our own terms. Some readers tell us that they read a graphic novel twice -- once to get absorbed into the flow of the story and a second time to pay attention to the pleasurable details that constitute the mise-en-scène of the story.
Third, I am interested in experimentation and innovation in popular entertainment media. In the case of my work on vaudeville and film comedy (Jenkins, 1992), I was interested in how the pleasure in performance (as in such things as eccentric dancing, pool tricks, juggling, acrobatics, clowning, and impersonation) associated with vaudeville helped to reshape the storytelling traditions of the classical Hollywood film in the early sound era. Or today, I am interested in the cases where the world (again, the physical space where the story takes place, but also the mythology associated with those environments) may be more important in some contemporary films than the story per se (Jenkins, oz) or where the story unfolds across many different platforms and exploits the distinctive properties of different media (what I call transmedia entertainment) (Jenkins, 2006) All of these projects encourage us to think about the relationship between different media traditions rather than to see media as operating in isolation from each other (what is often called a medium specific approach). My core approach is comparative -- whether I am trying to describe how interactive texts like games might tell stories (through analogy to older media traditions that use space to enhance our experiences of stories) or how comics operate in relation to other traditions that are more centered around material culture (from still life paintings to scrapbooks).
Angela ndalianis: My research tends to circulate around the stories of specific genres – horror, science fiction and superhero – across media. My work focuses on the particular aesthetics of each genre, how it addresses us cognitively, sensorially and emotionally. What, for example, makes the narratives, visual effects, characters, themes of the horror genre different to that of science fiction or the superhero genre? How does the medium deliver its message to its audience?
I’m currently writing a book on Batman – comic book Batman – and it’s been quite a struggle to pin down which comics in what series I focus on. The aesthetics of each comic can change dramatically depending on who the writer is and who the artist is – and there are many. Likewise, Batman’s stories progress in singular series but can be different in other parallel series: different time periods in Batman’s life; what if scenarios that imagine Batman facing off Dracula, or trying to capture Jack the Ripper in Victorian times; Batman with the Bat-family and without. In this complex web of Bat-stories is it possible to find the ‘true’ Batman. The short answer is, no!
In the case of film, in addition to examining the narrative and audio-visual conventions of each genre, I’ve become very interested in affect. Do film genres address our bodies, emotions, and senses in different ways? In the case of horror, I’d say it’s impact on the body of the spectator is the most intense in that it combines sound and vision to extract feelings of disgust, horror, dread and anxiety. My research also focuses on what happens to these genres when we engage with them in different media formats. How does each medium tell its story and speak to our bodies? But more of this later...
I’ve always been drawn to storytelling and storytelling strategies across media. I’m particularly fascinated by stories that expand – serials, sequels, transmedia, etc – and cross the boundaries of a single, contained narrative. My primary research focuses on how this happens in visual and audio-visual media, including painting, film, television, videogames, theme park attractions and comics.
Triumph of the Name of Jesus (1661-79) by Giovanni Battista Gaulli, in the Church of the Gesú, Rome.
Let’s start with painting. I’m especially riveted by how artists of the C17th – the period known as the baroque - told stories in the painting medium. In many of the spectacular ceiling frescoes of the time (for example, Pietro da Cortona’s “Barberini Ceiling”, Andrea Pozzo’s ceiling painting in the church of S.Ignazio, Giovanni Battista Gaulli’s Gesú ceiling fresco), the frame that, during the Renaissance period, was used to contain stories became a border that was deliberately crossed, allowing one story and its characters to enter the space of another. In my research I’ve argued that this baroque narrative strategy has found a new form of expression in our own era. In terms of contemporary media, I’m interested in similar types of border crossing.
Obviously, we’re dealing with very different media technologies, but the storytelling strategies are very similar. We’ve seen comic book superhero characters like Batman, Spiderman and the Avengers, for example, extend their stories across films, television series, video games and theme park experiences. And within each medium, multiple serial extensions exist (superhero comics would be the most prolific serial form). Why do these extended story formations dominate during our times (and also in the C17th)?
There are many complex factors that come into play but, perhaps, the most obvious one is that both periods are marked by intense media saturation, where audiences are media-savvy and familiar with narrative conventions. Genre stories are especially susceptible. Consider the intense fandom that accompanies superhero, horror, fantasy and science fictions, for example. Fans know the stories of their favorite genres and in order to sustain interest creators need to offer more complex, innovative, engaging stories that retain fan interest. A couple of strategies that speak to a more media/genre immersed audience are those of the serial/sequel (extending the story across one medium) and transmedia (extending the story stories across multiple media).
But here, let me return to a point I made earlier about how each medium offers its own experience of a shared story. I too am interested in comparative analyses of media. How do we begin to discuss both the shared and different storytelling strategies of media that begin with the same storytelling premise?
Consider Resident Evil franchise. I love playing the games, but these require a different response from the player when compared to watching the films. When I watch the films, I’m not the protagonist, instead I become embroiled in the story of Alice (Milla Jovovich) as she fights off the hordes of zombies that invade the city spaces. I can’t affect the action, I can only watch and get caught up in it as it unravels onscreen. In the games, on the other hand, as player I take an active role – as protagonist – and with my game controller I make choices about which spaces to navigate and how to kill the zombies that invade my space. More recently, I played Resident Evil 7 in VR. The games and films were creepy and gory, but the VR experience upped the ante! Playing the game in VR drove home how our bodies are affected by different media in distinctive ways. No matter how much your conscious brain is aware that “it’s only a game”, the medium actually tries to convince you otherwise. There are moments of real terror when you come face to face with zombies, and it feels like you’re actually sharing the same virtual space. The intensity of feeling your heart pounding and screaming in fear is very different to the non-VR experiences.
HJ: Between us, we’ve covered many contemporary media and across this exchange, I want to drill down on several of them, offering insights for educators who may want to encourage their students to develop critical skills in thinking about these widespread media practices that impact their own cultural lives. I want to start with amusement parks, which I know have been a long-standing interest of yours.
I have been struck recently by the phenomenon of families and individuals, stuck in their home due to the Covid 19 lockdowns, who have produced and shared videos where they recreate and re-perform some of the top attractions at Disney’s theme parks. I’ve long been interested in the fan network that has grown up around Disney theme parks, which was the focus of a recent book by Rebecca Williams (2020) -- including various fan fiction, fan art, cosplay, and videos related to the attractions. These phenomena suggest that the rides not only generate memorable experiences but that these experiences inspire creative, active, and socially networked responses. Such practices fly in the face of cultural critics who describe these attractions as “non-spaces” or “pseudo-experiences'' (Eco, 1990).
These recent videos allow us to see what specifically these families recall from their visits to the park, which often involves a mixture of sensations and images. For example, in this video recreating The Pirates of the Caribbean (below), the sensations include the rush of the boat going over the waterfall and the images include a number of micro-narratives, such as the imprisoned pirates trying to steal the keys from the dog or the encounter with a drunken Jack Sparrow at the end of the ride. The rides often involve translating moments in a narrative -- in this case, a generic pirate story that did not pre-exist the attraction but helped provide the blueprint for a successful film series -- into spaces we ride past, keeping our hands and arms in the vehicle at all times. These videos, in effect, reverse that process, translating spaces at the attraction into moments in the vehicle. For these fans, the pleasure lies in embodying the characters and situations that they would otherwise only be able to watch from their boats, but also the technical challenges they face in trying to recapture those experiences using everyday materials they found around the house.
There are many other such videos, engaging with Splash Mountain, the Haunted Mansion, It’s a Small World, and other popular theme park rides. While Disney has traditionally been highly protective of its intellectual properties, sending cease and desist letters to fans who have shared their creative responses to their properties, these videos have generated much publicity for the parks while they have been closed to business due to the pandemic. And I can’t help but read them as the participatory embodiment of many of the storytelling principles promoted by the Imagineers, the designers who mastermind these attractions.
Consider the Imagineering in a Box video series, which was created for the Khan Academy and which I have used in teaching my students about world-building. Consider, for example, this introductory video (seen below) -- Veteran Imagineer Joe Rohde describes some key differences between “environmental storytelling” (i.e., amusement park design) and storytelling in other media:
“The first is that our story is multi-sensory. Everything is happening to you -- what you smell, what you see, what you hear, how you feel, the temperature, the time of day, how you personally choose to move through space. So we’re telling our story using every possible sense that a human would present….Secondarily our story is not necessarily told in a line…. And this is one of the reasons why the story has to come at you from all of these different senses. Because I don’t really know how it’s gonna start or how it's going to end. You are moving freely through this space, experiencing this story all at once, at every moment.”
The design of the attraction has to make the shifts in our attention seem as if they were fully under our control, even as they get us to focus on those elements that are central to conveying the narrative. This is why certain key elements in the attraction are recognizable to most of us when we watch the fan video. The Pirates ride has some moments that are like a three ring circus, where we can look in multiple directions and see different things, but there are moments most if not all of us see and experience because of the way they use sound, movement, color to draw our eyes towards them. We are free to look elsewhere but if we don’t want to miss the main attraction, we are drawn to a particular spot.
Another Imagineer explains, “In environmental storytelling, the guest, each person experiencing the story, is really the center of that story.” This immersive, multisensory storytelling focuses on making the visitors’ experience memorable. The story is constructed to give the “guests” a “role” in the narrative, which can be quite different from the experience of creating identification with a film character. In the amateur video, the family includes representations of the vehicle moving through the attraction as part of what they want to reproduce, which may be rather different than the ways amateurs might recreate a scene from a movie. It is very unlikely that it would include the theater seats and the popcorn when the film scenes were reperformed.
This segment of the Imagineering video series does not discuss this, but the designers break the story down into vignettes that are tied to different spaces: as we travel through the land, we do not encounter the same location twice, so this requires a different way of breaking down the narrative than the “beats” that organize a film or television show. There, narrative design assumes that the story will be told through a limited number of locations that we will encounter more than once. The Imagineering videos can be a very productive way of getting students to reflect on their experiences of theme park attractions. And keep in mind that the storytelling extends beyond the ride itself, increasingly involving the waiting area but also the exterior of the building and its surrounding environments. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter or the new Star Wars-Galaxy’s Edge attraction push this idea of environmental storytelling to their logical end point, where eating, buying things, all become part of our personal story of a visit to Hogsmead or our visit to the Cantina.
Angela, I know you’ve taught classes where you took students to visit the parks. Can you share some of your reflections and experiences teaching the theme parks course?
AN: Henry, you’ve sent me tripping down memory lane. The theme park course I ran was one of the highlights of my teaching experience. Students who enrolled were from Australia and most were film and screen studies students, which was ideal given the focus of the course, which was on theming and storytelling within a theme park context. The interest, particularly, was on the influence of film and television on the contemporary theme park experience, but we also examined origins and influences. The course started in Los Angeles, with visits to the two iconic film theme parks – Disneyland and Universal Studios. We then went to Las Vegas – THE themed city of the world – and then on to Orlando where we visited EPCOT, Disneyworld, and Universal’s Islands of Adventure. The final stop was New York and the place where it all started – Coney Island. I’ll unpack highlights from some of these locations and focus specifically on the point you raise about the crucial role that the senses play in the construction of stories in theme parks.
In my book, The Horror Sensorium (2012), I discuss how narrative media all rely on and address the human sensorium, which is the perceptual system that calls upon the senses and cognition in unison. Depending on the medium, there are different levels of emphasis placed on specific senses and our engagement with the cognitive skills required of us to make sense of the storyworlds. In film-inspired theme parks, we bring the stories and worlds of characters with us. The parks invite us to experience our memories of pre-established worlds in new ways.
Let me start with Disneyland. I’m going to use that no-no word, “immersion”. Yes, it’s a problematic term because all media immerse us in their own media-specific ways. A theme park like Disneyland immerses us, firstly, by placing us within the spaces occupied by its characters – Mickey Mouse, Sleeping Beauty, Peter Pan and, more recently, Star Wars. We exist, geographically-speaking, in their domain. In turn, characters are placed in their own distinctive lands and the lands have expanded since Disneyland opened in 1955. The originals – Fantasyland, Frontierland, Tomorrowland, Adventureland – have been joined by New Orlean’s Square, Mickey’s Toon Town, Critter Country, and Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge.
Sleeping Beauty’s castle, interior, Disneyland.
While on the course, I tried to get students to imagine the radical vision that Disney made real in 1955. He created a comprehensive experiential, transmedia, franchise-driven entertainment experience before it became a key strategy for the industry around thirty years later. By separating the visitor’s experience of the story into lands, Disneyland tries to ensure that the story experience isn’t ruptured by, for example, the presence of a Star Trooper in the Fantasyland occupied by Sleeping Beauty or Peter Pan. In Fantasyland, for example, it’s possible to visit Sleeping Beauty’s castle, enter its interior and even see her lying on a bed (in sculpted form) moments before the Prince’s kiss awakens her. The journey outside and inside the castle fully activates the senses. We know Sleeping Beauty (Aurora)’s story, so the walk into the castle and up the stairs only gives us economic and iconic reminders of that story in the form of dioramas – Aurora as a baby being visited by her fairy godmothers, an appearance of the wicked witch who bewitches Aurora, the Prince fighting the witch, the Prince breaking the spell by kissing the princess. Unlike in the animated film, we experience the story anew, and this time our senses come to the fore.
Our vision is far more active as our eyes travel across the surfaces of the interior, taking in Sleeping Beauty’s world. Our sense of smell picks up scents from food stands that are outside, or the body odors and food carried by other visitors in the castle. We are now also contributors to the sound design as we, and others, vocally express delight at what we see. The other sensory modality that is even more dominant is that of proprioception or kinesthesis – our sense of space and how we move through and understand our body in a space. I wanted the students to think about the different storytelling strategies that come into play in Disneyland. To consider how our kinesthetic motion through the Castle, Mickey’s and Minnie’s houses, through Frontierland, etc becomes crucial to story construction, particularly given the fact that in the theme park, we are being asked to become the main actor. This is OUR experience of Disney stories as we literally move through them, creating our own narrative and memories through our presence and movement through the spaces.
Futurama exhibit at the 1939 World Exposition in New York
In addition to navigating the story spaces of Disney characters, seeing and entering the buildings they inhabit, meeting characters like Mickey, Minnie, Pluto or the Disney princesses, the other thing we examined was how Disney adapted the midway attractions zones at the 1893 Chicago World Expo (where his father had worked, and which introduced the Ferris Wheel), attractions like Bel Geddes Futurama exhibit at the 1939 World Exposition in New York (which placed participants on seats and rotated them above a diorama construction of a city of 1960), and amusement parks and rides. Disney provided the park rides with a more thematic and narrative logic that was inspired by the films produced by the studio and the themes introduced in the television series, The Wonderful World of Disney. With famous exceptions like Pirates of the Caribbean and Haunted Mansion, most of the rides had been experienced earlier in screen media form. But rather than discussing the rides at Disneyland and the sensory experience they have to offer, let me turn instead to those at Universal Studios.
Universal’s difference, compared to the Disney parks, is in the way it favors merging traditional ride technology like the roller coaster, with screen technology. Until recently, with the introduction of the Star Wars rides, Disney has favored adopting traditional amusement park rides and thematizing them to relate to Disney franchises. For example, the dark rides, which involve sitting in a buggy and being moved around a dark space that unveils story segments through audio-animatronics (e.g. Snow White’s Scary Adventures, Haunted Mansion, Pirates of the Caribbean, It’s a Small World), or the roller coaster (e.g. Splash Mountain which takes you through the locations of characters from the animation Song of the South; or Space Mountain where people board the Tomorrowland Transit Authority PeopleMover and travel in high velocity through the galaxy and into the future – themes that were explored in the television series). Universal, on the other hand, has, since the 1980s, been interested in creating hybrid rides that push film technology to the limits by merging it with amusement park rides like coasters and dark rides. At Universal’s Islands of Adventure, for example, we looked at these synergies that the park offered, and how the structure of the theme park according to lands had borrowed from the Disney parks. Unlike the Universal Studios theme parks, which tend to theme franchise stories through the rides, at the Islands of Adventure, there are eight lands, which include the Marvel Superhero Island, Jurassic World, Skull Island and the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.
The one ride that thrilled the students (and me) was the Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man at the Marvel Superhero Island. Here, you enter the offices of the Daily Bugle (the waiting/queuing space) and see the interior and Peter Parker’s office as physical reconstructions, while on television screens, you witness J. Jonah Jameson speaking to us as well as news flashes that tell us about the action that we’ll soon be part of. We are the heroes – well, assistant to the hero, Spider-Man – and our mission is to help Spidey capture the evil Sinister Syndicate (which includes Doctor Octopus, Hydro Man and Electro) who have kidnapped the Statue of Liberty. As is the case with the Disney theme parks, we bring our knowledge of Spider-Man’s storyverse with us, but here we become characters in one of his adventures which is also our adventure.
However, unlike the cartoons and comics (which the ride draws upon) we don’t watch or read the stories unravel. Here we are in the story as it develops, and the narrative is experienced in sensorially invasive ways. When we enter the coaster buggy (the scoop) and put on our 3D glasses, we’re propelled on a journey through an architecturally reconstructed mini-New York – Spidey’s domain. The ‘story’ unveils itself in segments as we’re thrust through the space and also placed in front of giant screens that reveal parts of the action: Spidey appears at numerous points by jumping on our scoop and making the car shake (he’s a projection on a screen that appears to enter our space). We feel the effect physically across our bodies. Doctor Octopus makes an appearance and tries to stop us by firing his blaster at us, the action making real fire explode in front of us. 3D projection and actual fire combine to amplify our sensory experience of the threat he poses – our eyes are fooled into thinking he’s in front of us, and our bodies feel the heat of the flames he releases. We continue at velocity speed – our kinesthetic sense kicking into full gear – and, at one point, the scoop pauses and then appears to plummet from the sky and towards the pavement that seems to be hundreds of meters below. Spidey saves the day by capturing the scoop with his web, pulling us and our stomachs upwards. Needless to say, we and Spidey save the day.
What is so inspiring about this ride is the way it conceives of storytelling in a way that relies heavily on our sensory experience of it. We don’t just look on as a narrative unravels before us, but instead feel the impact of the actions across our bodies and senses: while on the ride, we feel fire, sense water on our skin, become nauseous as the scoop plummets across space, our bodies are shaken and thrown around, sound effects and 3D visuals convince us that we are truly part of the fiction we perceive happening around us. This, like many other theme park rides, want us to feel like we are part of the story action and playing an active role in how it develops before us.
I can go on about this stuff forever. For me, there’s nothing more thrilling or delightful about this form of storytelling. I might end with one example from Las Vegas. Obviously, the Las Vegas Strip relies on attracting us into its lavish themed spaces – from Caesars Palace, to the Bellagio, to the Venetian. The way Vegas thematizes its narrative experiences is a whole other story, so let me focus instead on one experience (that unfortunately no longer exists): the Star Trek Experience at the Las Vegas Hilton, which drew upon the Star Trek franchise as its central focus. The entire thing comprised a series of attractions, including a History of the Future Museum, a simulation ride (The Klingon Encounter, which is set in the Next Generation world and where we board the Enterprise-D to help find a missing Captain Picard), a 4D cinema that includes water, smoke and wind effects (The Borg Invasion, where we meet Captain Janeway and the Doctor from Voyager via screens who prepare us for a space battle with the Borg Queen) and, the pièce de resistance, the Deep Space Nine promenade and Quark’s Bar.
In the bar, an alternative sensory and storytelling experience is offered to participants. The idea was that we became part of the Star Trek world where we could order and consume food and drinks at Quark’s bar, interact with actors performing as Star Trek personnel, or as intergalactic Romulan, Vulcan, Ferengi and Klingon visitors. The actors were very familiar with the Trek universe and would stay in character according to their backstories, while also being flexible enough to ad lib unscripted discussions with us. To become fully part of the narrative – your narrative – in this space, you simply need to play along. The more you know about the Star Trek universe, the more rewarding and richer the story you leave with will be. Most of the students were too shy to start or continue dialogues but as a Trek fan I was ready to go! I shamelessly offered to stroke one of the Ferengi’s ears (their erogenous zone) and impressed one of the Klingon officers so much with my knowledge of worm holes and warp engines that he promised to beam me up to Engineering where they needed my help (still waiting!). Unlike the rides, which control how their sensory adventure unravels in space and time, in Quark’s Bar we are free to create our own stories and experiences as we talk to ‘the crew’ and aliens – all the while engaging our taste buds in the consumption of a Wrap of Khan, a Hamburger, or Sisko’s Sirloin.
HJ: I love what you say here about the multisensory nature of these amusement park and casino attractions. In this case, all of the senses are activated at once to create an “immersive” experience, but we might also think of these attractions as extensions of the larger entertainment supersystem. Having experienced Quark’s bar as an actual place, hanging out with Ferengi, drinking Romulan Ale, will change how I respond to Star Trek the next time I watch it. Certain background elements will pop, certain situations will be more meaningful.
Campfire, a company built by some of the producers of The Blair Witch Project, employs some of the core experts on how to construct an awareness campaign that also encourages viewers to explore elements of these dense worlds before they turn on the show. With Game of Thrones, they faced serious challenges, because there was one segment of readers who were already intensely invested in Westeros through George R. R. Martin’s book series, and another that was going to get shoved into the deep end of the pool with the first episode, which introduced such a wide array of character from warring houses. Campfire was commissioned to help provide exposition and orientation through diverse media encounters.
My students and I like to work through the case study videos Campfire shares about their projects. Take a moment to watch what they did to launch Game of Thrones. Two things seem important to flag here. The first is the idea of a multisensory campaign that appeals to our smell, sight, sound, taste and touch, making Westeros into a tangible place. My students are especially fascinated by the use of food as a storytelling element. We now know what the dishes of the various kingdoms taste like and through this, we know something of their cultures and landscapes. Second, the campaign is designed to work on multiple levels, counting on influencers to carry word of their experiences through their blogs, videos, and social media commentary; allowing hardcore fans to dig deeper into the mythology; and creating encounters (such as the food trucks) casual viewers will talk about with their friends even if they did not know Game of Thrones even existed as they set off on their morning routines.
As Game of Thrones entered its final season, it had become arguably the most popular television series in the world, but industry observers knew that its resolution would result in a huge economic loss for HBO unless it could find another global hit in order to sustain the swelling number of subscribers the fantasy series had attracted. Saturday Night Live ran a satire identifying different strategies by which Game of Thrones might extend its shelf-life -- spinoff series foregrounding different secondary characters from its ensemble, embracing different genres (from sitcom to soap opera) and audiences (such as children and urban teens). I ask my students to identify how expansive world-building, often across media, helps to drive contemporary entertainment franchises. We draw parallels to the strategies deployed by other popular film and television series. And in the process, we begin to identify the affordances and aesthetics of different media, what they allow storytellers and audiences to do, and how the economics of these media industries shape what stories get told. Such concepts seem increasingly important as we think about media literacy education in a networked culture.
You were lucky enough to take your Australian students on a trip of a lifetime to learn about amusement attractions. Living and working in Los Angeles, I am lucky to be able to bring guest speakers from many different wings of the entertainment industry -- comic book writers, game designers, Imagineers, screenwriters, show runners, advertising executives, toy manufacturers, and podcasters Throughout the semester, my students work in teams to identify a pre-existing media property they find compelling and develop strategies for creating transmedia experiences. Doing so helps them to absorb and creatively demonstrate their grasp of core media literacy concepts. In the end, they deliver a pitch, complete with a story bible, to actual executives from old and new media companies. Many of these mentors spend their days hearing pitches. These guests offer feedback and sometimes harsh reality checks. They tell me that the students are often several years ahead of the curve in terms of their grasp of emerging entertainment practices.
The full experience would be difficult for most classroom teachers to pull off, but the core idea here that students best learn to understand how transmedia storytelling works by developing their own “pitches” for adopting already known stories for this new media environment is something that can enhance teaching at every level (Jenkins, 2005).
The temptation is to think about transmedia as something brand new, something radically different from the ways entertainment has worked in the past. To some degree, the current configuration is distinctive of the current moment and is highly dependent on social media to drive audience awareness, for example.
But let’s break it down. Transmedia is an adjective which requires something to modify. It can describe all kinds of practices that extend across different media. Humans have been telling stories through multiple modalities for as long as humans have been telling stories. Go back to the earliest human artifacts we have -- the cave paintings produced by prehistoric people. They were paintings, visual depictions, often of animals but archaeologists have long believed that they were sites for performances, as early humans recounted their hunting experiences, perhaps through gestures and dance. More recently it was discovered that most of the paintings occur at spots in the caverns which are acoustic hotspots, providing natural amplification, so it is very clear that the human voice was used -- perhaps, in the absence of language, to imitate the sounds the animals made in the heat of their life-and-death struggles.
Our current transmedia practices allow us to pay attention to older developments that might have seemed marginal before but now look, retrospectively, like stepping stones towards the current moment. Consider the case of L. Frank Baum, who saw himself as the Royal Geographer of Oz, an imaginary place which he expanded upon book by book through the early years of the 20th century. (Jenkins, 2017b) His world-building extended across many other media through the years: he had his own film production company which experimented with special effects; he and his illustrator ran rival comic-strips using Oz characters and situations; he wrote Broadway musical extravaganzas set in the Emerald City, some of which he later novelized into books for his series; and he went on lecture tours showing magic lantern slides to illustrate the history and geography along the Yellow Brick Road. The folks at Campfire could learn a few things from Baum, who began his career as a window dresser for major department stores in Chicago and wrote a book on the topic. As with Campfire, it is hard to draw a sharp line between commercial and creative motives where Baum is concerned, a point not lost on my students.
Angela, you’ve similarly been tracing the history of “immersive” and multi-sensual entertainment experiences. What have you found?
AN: Game of Thrones is a great example of the level of intensity and immersion that can be created through sensory forms of storytelling and it’s also an example we look at with my students. We also look at the transmedia stories that circulated around True Blood, also devised by Campfire, and the ‘Why So Serious?’ Dark Knight campaign, which was one of the early world building campaigns created by 42 Entertainment. In all of these examples, fiction collapses into reality and sensory engagement is brought to the fore.
In my research exploring media histories, during the C17th (roughly) historical baroque period media fictions that were devised included complex transmedia experiences. As I mentioned earlier, there are many formal parallels between our current global entertainment forms – which I call neo-baroque – and those of the baroque period. One formal characteristic is the tendency to develop expansive storyworlds that spill across media. This can be in ambitious and spectacular illusionistic ceiling paintings like the Gaulli example I mentioned earlier, where painted scenes that surround the central story that depicts the adoration of the name of Jesus (in the framed center) spill out of the elaborate golden frame: painted angels weave over the frames and enter the architecture of the ceiling; damned figures similarly spill out of the framed narrative on the ceiling and appear to begin to plummet down to hell (which, as a warning, also happens to be the space of the church that the worshipper occupies), and a group of blessed worshippers seem to hover just outside the enframed, central space that represents heaven, almost but not quite within its reach. All of these stories connect but are also extensions of the main narrative and the play of illusionism, which suggests the entry of the stories into the space of the church further connect the complex religious narrative with that of the worshippers below. The spectacle merges with the sounds of the sermon and music, the smells of incense and candles, the haptic sensations of the touch of rosaries and crucifixes, to become a powerful sensory tale about a series of stories – from the potential ascension to Heaven to the descent into Hell.
One of the most exuberant and comprehensive examples of C17th transmedia experiences would be associated with Louis XIV’s reign as King of France, which lasted 72 years. Louis XIV labelled himself ‘the Sun King’ – i.e. an omniscient being around whom the world orbited. His other moniker was Apollo, the sun god, and the face of Louis XIV as Apollo litters the decorations of the Palace of Versailles, operating as symbolic icon of the Louis XIV franchise. Many artists, musicians, architects, garden designers, writers etc were hired to devise stories based on his status as Sun King/Apollo for entertaining (as a display of power) the powerful aristocracy and his powerful competitors. Operating like a superhero chevron, the figure of Apollo became the inspiration for stories about the King’s symbolic power that travelled across media throughout Versailles.
Louis XIV as Apollo, the Sun King in Le Ballet de la nuit (1653).
Some of the examples included: the early, pre-Versailles, 13-hour performance of the Ballet de la Nuit/Ballet of the Night, performed by the King and his courtiers (fans?), with Louis XIV adopting the role of Apollo, who brought order to the chaos depicted in the story; the Apollo room, which was the King’s Ceremony and Throne Room, and which includes a ceiling painting dedicated to the Sun King; the complex garden design which was like a theatre that displayed the god/king’s power through a series of sculptures and fountains depicting stories of Apollo – the Apollo Fountain (which captures the god bringing the dawn by emerging from the sea in his horse-driven chariot), Apollo Served by the Nymphs (depicting Apollo being slavishly pampered by nymphs), Latona’s Fountain (where Latona – mother of Apollo and Diana – curses the Lycian peasants), and the Dragon Fountain (which shows a monstrous python dying after Apollo’s arrows have pierced him); and the Hall of Mirrors, whose seventeen mirrors reflected and amplified the intense rays of sunlight that entered the room through the seventeen glass doors on the other side. In the 1670s the writer André Félibien published a book about Versailles and he wrote, ‘Since the sun is the emblem of Louis XIV, and poets link the sun with Apollo, there is nothing in this superb house that does not relate to this divinity’. Through Apollo, the stories told through sculptures, paintings, decorations, plays, ballets, and an array of other media contributed towards the creation of a myth about Louis XIV, whose power was viewed as God-like and absolute. Versailles became the backdrop to a transmedia world that told the stories of Louis XIV’s alter ego, the god Apollo.
But this was a form of storytelling that revealed a baroque love for sensory experiences. The courtiers and visitors to Versailles were introduced to the diverse examples in highly programmed ways that placed the senses at the centre of stories that were about Louis XIVth’s absolute power as embodied by Versailles as microcosm of the world. The king would hold parties – or fêtes galante – that would last days. An introduction to the tales of Louis XIV’s Apollonian power – the sculptures, the paintings, the plays, the ballets, the decorative features embedded in the architecture – was also accompanied by the gustatory and olfactory pleasures of food and drink consumption at banquets, the olfactory delights of touring the gardens and experiencing the scents of flowers in bloom, the haptic thrill of being squirted by water from the many trick fountains that populated the garden, the visual delights of elaborate fireworks, and the kinesthetic pleasures of dancing and performing in the ballets and theatre productions that took place in the gardens.
The primary difference with these examples, compared to those of the C21st, is that these were transmedia experiences devised for aristocrats not the masses. The franchises back then produced transmedia stories based on the names of powerful families and Catholic religious orders (often connected to ruling families) – the Jesuits, the Dominicans, the Franciscans, the Barberini, the Bourbons, the Habsburgs, etc – not big media corporations like Disney, TimeWarner, Comcast, Sony, etc.
HJ: This history lesson is an important reminder that the most vital stories of the culture were always being told across media and that there has been an ongoing search for multisensory engagement. Andre Bazin (1967) talked about the “myth of total cinema,” a push towards the total reproduction of the world in all of its dimensions, anticipating in many ways contemporary VR technology, for example. There is nothing new about this search for immersive experience.
In this context, we might consider the debate Martin Scorsese (2019) sparked in Fall 2019 when he took on the Marvel Cinematic Universe -- one of those corporate franchises you allude to here. Writing about a controversial interview he had given, Scorsese told New York Times readers:
“I’ve tried to watch a few of them and that they’re not for me, that they seem to me to be closer to theme parks than they are to movies as I’ve known and loved them throughout my life, and that in the end, I don’t think they’re cinema.”
What interests me here is his reference to Marvel films as like theme parks, an analogy that brings with it associations with carny barker commercialism, spectacle, fragmentation, sensation, and meaningless pleasure. The spectacle (and the formula) of superhero movies overwhelmed any human connection for Scorsese (and perhaps many media literacy educators). He seems confused by the expansion of these stories across so many films. Superheroes from their birth -- whether understood in terms of early comic books or before that the pulp magazines -- have been multiple modal with the Masked Avenger figure taking shape through words and pictures, whether juxtaposed on a comic page or between the graphic cover and the interior text of the pulp. And Superman moved rapidly from comic books to comic strips, live action serials, animated shorts, and radio drama within the first years of his existence, each contributing something distinctive to his core mythology. So, again, a historical perspective helps us to better understand the transmedia nature of the superhero genre as more than Disney’s desire to rule over all of the media and own all of our fantasy worlds (accurate though that description may be.)
Ultimately, what discounts Marvel films as “cinema” for Scorsese is that these films lack a human dimension, do not address “the complexity of people and their contradictory and sometimes paradoxical natures, the way they can hurt one another and love one another and suddenly come face to face with themselves.” The MCU fans would insist that they do feel an emotional connection with these characters. Checking just now, Archive of Our Own -- only one of several important fan fiction archives -- contains more than 420,000 pieces of fan fiction written about those characters (Jenkins, 2019). Most of these stories center on the inner life of Captain America or Tony Stark or the other recurring characters. Just as Scorsese grew up with the western and learned to read the differences between John Ford and Anthony Mann, MCU fans learn to make connections between information dispersed across a range of media and stitch them together to form a coherent picture of the different personalities and conflicting world views of these various characters. The story is not contained within a single work: because of the expansive build up, many people -- myself among them -- wept at some key moments in Avengers: End Game. The literate MCU fan needs to follow an ever-expanding set of characters with long histories in comics, who move across each other’s films, and who are developing their personalities through actions in scenes otherwise laden with spectacle. I hate to say it, but Scorsese doesn’t know how to read superhero movies. The same may be true for a large number of media educators of the same generation raised with similar expectations about cinematic purity.
Scorsese’s comments reduce the films to those spectacle moments, which he compares to the multisensory experience of an amusement park ride, but I am reminded that the groundbreaking Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein (1974) looked to the carnival to help develop his theory of montage which for him was at the heart of cinema. He saw there a wide array of “attractions” he felt helped the spectator to achieve cognition “through the living play of the passions.” He sought to duplicate the multisensory and highly emotional aesthetic of the fairground as a precise mechanism through which he might rally the public behind his vision for a better Soviet society. Eisenstein teaches us to look towards the larger meanings contained within and conveyed by spectacle. Spectacle does not simply seek to astonish us but also helps to open up new worlds. Eisenstein was producing Bolshevik spectacle, Louie XIVTH Royalist spectacle, and Marvel/Disney capitalist spectacle.
Going back to your discussion of Louis XIVth and his obsession with Apollo, it’s become a cliché to think about superheroes as mythic figures, not unlike the classic construction of Gods. Their sagas become important stories to tell about the ethics and moral codes of our society -- specifically about how to deploy power in the service of the common good. With great power comes great responsibility, Spider-Man tells us, but the nature of that responsibility is as diverse as the nature of their powers. This makes the superhero a particularly powerful resource that activists are working with to transform capitalist spectacle (as produced by Disney or Warners) into democratic spectacle, spectacle that speaks on behalf of civil society (Jenkins, Shresthova, et al, 2016).
Billy Proctor has been gathering a range of images which connect the superhero metaphor to the global pandemic. Here, the artists draw upon the mask as a core metaphor from the superhero genre, bestowing a particular notion of the heroic on those who wear it.
And we also see here a range of images that bestow respect on health care workers, food service workers, even street cleaners, either by having iconic superheroes gesture towards them or having superheroes perform these jobs.
This last image I found on a wall on the street where I live. I am struck by the range of media sharing this message -- from handmade cards gifted to nurses to editorial cartoons to street art to nonprofit advertising messages. Similar imagery surfaced after 9/11 in regard to first responders (Jenkins, 2006c) and now, the circle is extended to a broader range of workers doing vital service to the public.
These icons are simple on their own terms and to some degree, the message is banal. But, just as superhero characters develop emotional depth through our encounters with them over time, these images, which come from the public, bring with them those encrusted meanings and associations, now being directed bottom up towards public heroes. Our media saturation with superheroes is what makes them so readily available to express a range of meanings.
You’ve been doing lots of thinking about superheroes across some of your recent projects. What is required to read and make meaning of the expansive networks of texts that have emerged around these characters?
AN: You raise many great points. Let me begin with Scorsese. I find it ironic that he slammed the MCU for ‘not being cinema’, when the generation of 1970s Film School directors he was part of played a key role in bringing back the low budget B-serial to a blockbuster sequel format. Sure, this format may be more aligned with Lucas and Spielberg, but it nevertheless speaks to an understanding that this extended form of storytelling has been there since the early days of cinema. It’s just found new forms of expression during different times. Scorsese may prefer his form of cinema as one that is the cinematic equivalent of the literary ‘greats’ – but that’s not to say that more popular, serialised, transmedia stories lack emotional power.
You’re dead right in your comments about the carny tradition that the MCU links back to. Eisenstein was drawn to carnival spectacle because of its emotive and sensory impact. Unlike Scorsese, for Eisenstein, spectacle wasn’t empty (which is what Scorsese implies by equating the films to the theme park ride) but something that invaded or attacked the body of the spectator. Eisenstein was interested in its power as a political tool - cinematic spectacle and the power of montage would shock the viewer out of political complacency. The entertainment spectacle offered by MCU and the web-like storytelling strategies it adopted packs a similar punch, but it does so in different ways.
I agree that Scorsese underestimates the way the ever-expanding stories of superheroes enter our lives and become integrated into our sense of being in the world. You mention the way superheroes have been used to comment and influence the civic imagination and have real world impact. This is powerful stuff. But I also think superheroes and their stories have impacted the lives of fans on the level of individual identity as well.
Over years we invest heavily in the journeys that our superheroes travel. You mention your response to the ending of Avengers: End Game. I watched the film with my nieces, and my 14-year old niece Madeline was crying uncontrollably watching the death of Tony Stark/Iron Man. After the film finished, she was still crying, and I asked her why? She said, between sobs, he was like my father. It suddenly dawned on me how much she had invested in this character across the film series. Tony Stark had become her ideal father figure and it hurt to see him go. Perhaps, he also offered her hope – through projection – of creating a similar ideal relationship with her own father.
If this isn’t cinema that impacts on our emotions, then I don’t know what is. In a way, it’s even more powerful than Scorsese’s solo film performances. With Travis Bickle, Henry Hill, Jimmy Doyle, Frank Sheeran, and Hugo Cabret we’re moved by their actions and life events for the duration of the film, and while we think about the story afterwards, the story comes to end. With Iron Man, Thor, Wonder Woman, and Captain Marvel the stories continue to weave themselves into our lives through multiple films, videogames, comics, television shows and across multiple years. In this sense, they have a huge impact on our sense of being.
Batman, 1966-68, still from a TV show on ABC. Season 2, episode 11, “The Clock King’s Crazy Crimes.” Robin (Burt Ward) and Batman (Adam West).
My friends and family are pretty familiar with my obsession with Batman. Batman was there as one of my early memories – along with Bugs Bunny and Looney Tunes, Astro Boy, and the Three Stooges! Batman infiltrated my life at the age of around 3-years old when my dad started giving me comics – I couldn’t read then, but the images were enough to captivate me. And then the television show solidified the connection further still. I didn’t understand the idea of ‘camp’ at that young age, but I did understand the sense of power – and empowerment – that this guy dressed in a bat-suit projected.
Now, in my ‘twilight years’, the connection to Batman is even stronger. He’s been in my life for almost six decades. As a fan, I feel I have some kind of mysterious ownership of him – he’s MY Batman. I’ve woven his adventures into memories of me in the process of becoming me. The early 60s comics kept me company during my toddler years and the mid-60s television series was with me in early primary school. The late 1980s Miller/Moore years fired me up while I was studying cinema studies at university, as did the blockbuster films that followed. It’s hard to describe the anticipation and exhilaration I feel every time a new Batman story enters his media universe, and affects me and the sense of who I am. I guess, Batman’s ever-expanding story across comics, films, television series and videogames has also become part of my story.
In December 2018 my colleagues and I organised a 3-day conference titled “Superheroes Beyond”, which looked at issues such as race, gender, and disability – i.e. beyond the heterosexual white male often associated with the superhero (and his fan). Some of the papers and panels were extremely moving. Some speakers talked about how superhero journeys empowered them to find strength in themselves to embrace their racial and ethnic identities in an oppressive white-dominant world; others spoke about their disabilities and how the introduction of more superhero stories dealing with disability issues (including disabled superheroes) had impacted on their lives in positive ways; others discussed how empowered they felt to see the introduction of powerful and realistic female superheroes (what I like to call the non-bazookified type) becoming more dominant across comics, films and television – along with more female creators.
The wonderful Trina Robbins – the famous comic book artist and writer who was also one of the first women part of the underground comix movement and first female artist to draw Wonder Woman – was keynote speaker at the conference. It was great to hear her stories about meeting with her girlfriends to share and read comics together during her childhood. Comics as a male domain was never always the case, many at the conference realised. The female consumer became ghetto-ised in the 1970s with the rise of comic book subscriptions and the comic book store. While pushed to the margins, some of us girls still managed to collect our superhero stories during these dark ages.
I think that the too often assumed position that superheroes (especially, comic book superheroes) are the domain of males has been exploded in recent years. Think of the shows like Jessica Jones (which included a team of all-female directors in season 2), or Kamala Khan, the new Ms Marvel – and first Pakistani-American superhero – with her own very successful comic book series, or the release of Wonder Woman, which broke new ground by being a multi-million dollar hit despite focusing on a female superhero AND being directed by Patty Jenkins, a woman (who apparently are incapable of directing blockbuster action films!). Or think of the Tumblr storm created by The Hawkeye Initiative, where people posted images of male superheroes in sexist poses normally applied to female superheroes in order to expose the level of misogyny in the industry. Fan pressure has initiated some changes, especially in the comics industry, but also in film and television. The superhero stories we consume mean a great deal to fans and social media have given fans a powerful voice to express their concerns about representation – of gender, race, ethnicity, disability, etc. On the issue of girls and comics, the ability to purchase comics online has also shifted the focus away for the dark dungeon comic book stores that I had to brave in the 1970s-90s, making it easier for women to buys comics. In fact, recent stats about superhero comic book fan demographics conducted by the comics website Graphic Policy and online comics company ComiXology reveal that there is now almost an equal split between the male and female demographics, with women being the majority of fans under 18. So, while we embraced our superhero stories despite their failings in terms of representation, increasingly we’re being introduced to a new expanding universe that is, perhaps, more grown up and morally and ethically conscious about the fan it addresses.
HJ: I have really enjoyed this chance to build on more than thirty years of friendship and various academic collaborations. It’s been fun to discuss so many different forms of media storytelling with you and to share with our readers some of the materials we bring into our classrooms to help our students to understand how storytelling operates in this multi-sensory, transmedia, networked context.
We’ve touched here on a range of issues that may be important for media literacy education -- the complex relationships that emerge between spectators and content as stories unfold across multiple media texts and over extended periods of time; the ways contemporary media experiences fit within a larger history of multisensory spectacle; the ways these media are designed to produce memorable experiences but also provide resources people use to make sense of their identities and to foster the civic imagination. Each of these insights have implications for how we teach media literacy.
There is certainly a value in discussing one medium at a time, developing an understanding of its specificity and affordances, discussing compelling examples that help students to appreciate its core building blocks. And in that sense, we hope this exchange has helped to broaden your vocabulary of different media forms and expanded your concept of what counts as a media experience. But teachers need to know that many students will also be racing ahead, thinking about how media collide, how individual characters fit within dense storyworlds, how stories move across media platforms, how media producers combine media and their affordances to intensify audience experiences, and how readers draw on their shared understandings of those stories to communicate with others of their generation.
As teachers grounded in the medium specific approach confronts students brought up in a transmedia culture, there is apt to be significant misunderstandings about what forms of media literacy are required and disagreements (as we saw with Scorsese and Marvel) about the value of different kinds of media experiences. And we need to keep in mind that an older population, grounded in text, has been taught to distrust media that appeals to our senses (let alone all five of them at once) or offers us spectacle or taps our emotions in such an overt way. All of these were seen as seductions and distractions rather than as means by which a different way of seeing the world might be brought to us through tapping the full range of the human sensorium.
There are insights to be gained here about what it might mean to take multimodality seriously as part of media education. We are not simply advocating that students should learn more about amusement parks or superhero movies, but rather, than students should be encouraged to draw on the full range of contemporary media to express their ideas and that just as Batman moves across media so do debates about Black Lives Matter. Learning to process information from different media and understand how these messages are coordinated across platforms seems core to being a literate citizen in today’s world.
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