From One Medium to the Next: How Comic Books Create Richer Storylines




Transmedia storytelling, comic books, characters, storylines

How to Cite

Bourdaa, M. (2018). From One Medium to the Next: How Comic Books Create Richer Storylines. M/C Journal, 21(1).
Vol. 21 No. 1 (2018): trans-seriality
Published 2018-03-14

Transmedia storytelling, as defined by Henry Jenkins in 2006 in his book Convergence Culture, highlights a production strategy that aims to augment the narration of a cultural work by scattering it across several media platforms—digital or non-digital. The term is certainly quite recent, but the practices are not new and allow us to understand the evolution of the cultural industries and the creation of a new media ecosystem. As Matthew Freeman states, transmedia storytelling always relies on industrial changes, the narration adapting itself to new media synergies and novelties to create engaging and coherent storyworlds.

Producers of American TV shows, showrunners, and networks are more and more eager to develop narrative universes on other media platforms in order to target new audiences and to give food for thought to fans, as well as reward them for their intellectual and emotional investment. Ancillary content and tie-ins sometimes take the form of novelisations or comic books, highlighting the fact that strategies of transmedia storytelling can be deployed on non-digital platforms and still enhance the narrative aspects of the show. For example, Twin Peaks (1990) developed The Diary of Laura Palmer (1990), a journal written by the character Laura Palmer who gave insights on her life and details about her relationships with other characters before she was murdered at the beginning of the series. How I Met Your Mother (2005-2014) published The BroCode (2008), first seen on episode “The Goat” (season 3 episode 17), and The Playbook (2012), first seen in an episode entitled “The Playbook” (season 5 episode 8). They are bibles written by character Barney Stinson that contain rules or advice for picking up women. For instance, The BroCode contains 150 articles, a glossary of terms, a definition of “a bro,” history of the code, amendments, violations, and approved punishments, all invented by Barney; some of these components were talked about on the show, while others were original additions for the book.

Another way to create transmedia storytelling around TV shows is by developing comic books. This article will explore this specific media form in relation to transmedia strategies and will try to underline how comic books can make a narrative richer by focusing on parts of the plot, characters, times, or locations. First, I will focus on the importance of seriality from a historical perspective, because seriality appears to be one of the main principles of transmedia storytelling. Yet, is this narrative continuity always coherent and always canon when it comes to the publication of comic books? I will then propose a typology of the narratives comic books exploit to augment the storytelling of a show. I will give examples to illustrate how comic books can enrich the narrative universe of a given show and how characters can smoothly move from one platform to the other.

A Transmedia World: Television and Comic Books Hand in Hand

Seriality is one of the main pillars of transmedia storytelling, and, according to Jenkins, “it is about breaking things down into chapters which are satisfying on their own terms, but which motivate us to come back for more” (“Transmedia”). These characteristics are already present in the way TV series are written, produced, and broadcast, and in the way comic books are created. They rely on episodes for TV shows and on issues for comic books that usually end with suspense and a suspension in the narrative continuity, commonly known as a cliff-hanger. For comic books, this narrative continuity took root in the early comic strips of the 18th and 19th century (Maigret and Stefanelli), which played a huge part in what we now know as comic books. As Pagello explains:

The extensive practice of narrative serialisation played a major role in this context: the creative process, the industrial production and distribution, the editorial practices and, finally, the experience of comics readers all underwent dramatic changes when comics started to develop an identity distinguished from satirical cartoons, illustrated books and the various forms of children’s picture stories.

According to Derek Johnson, these evolutions, in terms of production and reception, are closely linked to the widespread use of the franchise model in media industries. Johnson explains that

comic books, video games, and other markets once considered ancillary now play increasingly significant and recentered roles in the production and consumption of everyday film and television properties such as Heroes, Transformers, and the re-envisioned Star Trek in ways that only very few innovators (such as George Lucas and his carefully elaborated and expanded Star Wars empire) had previously conceived in the twentieth century.

The creation of transmedia strategies that capitalize on narrative continuity and seriality call for some synergies between media and for a “gatekeeper” of the stories who will ensure that all is coherent in the storyworld. Thus, “in 2006, the management of Heroes, for example, became a job for a professional ‘Transmedia Team’ charged with implementing creative coordination across television, comics, and the Internet” (Johnson).

Another principle of transmedia storytelling, closely linked to seriality and the essence of the definition, is the creation of a narrative universe, that is “world-building,” in which plots and characters develop, and which will lay the foundations for the story. These foundations will be written in what is called a Bible, a document containing all the narrative elements in order to ensure coherence. In the notion of world-building, a matrix of possibilities is deployed, since stories can potentially become threads to weave, and re-weave. This rhizomatic world can be extended to infinity in a canonical way (by the official production) and in a non-canonical one (by the creations of fans). For Mark Wolf, these narrative worlds work like dynamic entities, and are transformative, transmedial, and transauthorial, which are similar to the notions and possibilities of transmedia storytelling, and media and cultural convergence. Stories that cannot be contained within the “real” of a single medium will be expended and developed on another or several other ones, creating a rich storyworlds. Comic books can be one of these tie-in media.

New Term, Old Creations: An Historical Overview

Matthew Freeman wrote in his latest book Historicising Transmedia Storytelling that these transmedia practices do have a past and existed long before the introduction of the term due to new technologies, production strategies, and reception tactics. Comic books were often an option to enrich storylines and further develop the characters. For example, L. Frank Baum created a storyworld around The Wizard of Oz made of mock newspapers, conferences, billboards, novels, musicals, and comic strips in order to “appeal to a migratory audience” (Jenkins, “I Have”) and to deepen the characters, introduce new ones, and discover the land of Oz as if it were a real location. The author used techniques of advertising to promote and above all to expand his storyworld. As newspaper comic strips were quite popular at the time, Baum created several tie-in extensions in the newspapers and in a novel format. As Jason Scott underlines, “serial narratology enhances the possibilities of advertising and exploitation through the established market for the second and subsequent instalment” (14). The series of comic strips entitled Queer Visitor from the Marvellous Land of Oz (1904-1905) picked up, in terms of narration, just after the end of the book, offering a new temporality and life for the characters. As Freeman notes, this choice follows an economic logic:

The era’s newspaper comic strips and their institutional tendency to prioritize recurring characters as successful advertising mechanisms (as witnessed in the cross-media dispersion of Buster Brown) had in fact influenced Baum to return to the series’ more familiar faces of Dorothy, the Scarecrow, and the Tin Woodman (2371).

Here, the beloved characters are moving from one medium to the next, giving new insights on their life after the end of the book, and enhancing their stories beyond its pages.

A Typology of Comic Books and Tie-in Extensions of TV Series

Before diving into a tentative typology, I want to look at the definition of canon in a transmedia storyworld. There is a strong debate in academic discussions around the issues of canonicity, and here I understand canonicity as the production of official texts around a given cultural content. That is because of precisely what is qualified as an official text or an official extension, and what is not. In the book I co-edited with Benjamin W.L. Derhy Kurtz (Derhy Kurtz and Bourdaa), we respond by coining the term “transtexts,” which includes officially produced texts and fantexts in the same narrative universe. The dichotomy between both kinds of texts is thus diminished. Nonetheless, in production and transmedia strategies, canonicity is hard to evaluate because “few television series have attempted to create transmedia extensions that offer such a (high level of) canonic integration, with interwoven story events that must be consumed across media for full comprehension” (Mittell 298). He follows by proposing a typology of two possible transmedia extensions based on a canon perspective versus a non-canon one: “what is extensions” extend the storyworld canonically and in a coherent way, whereas “what if extensions” “pose(s) hypothetical possibilities rather than canonical certainties, inviting viewers to imagine alternate stories and approaches to storytelling that are distinctly not to be treated as potential canon” (Mittell 298). Mark Wolf refers to the term growth to qualify canonical materials which are going to expand a given storyworld and which nourish the stories. As argued by Gabriel et al., “Wolf’s definition of ‘growth’ makes it clear that, for him, a transmedial product can only be considered to contribute to a world’s growth if it adds new ‘canonical’ material, i.e. material that presents new pieces of information that are “true” for the fictional world” (Gabriel et al. 169). This notion of “truth” to the diegesis can be opposed in this context to the notion of alternate stories and alternate versions of the characters.

My attempted typology lays its foundation upon this opposition between what is seen as an official extension and what is seen as an unofficial extension, but offers alternate perspectives to expand the storyworld using new characters, locations, or universes. The first category will look at canonical extensions and how they can deepen characters’ development and temporalities. The second category will deal with “canon divergent” (to use fans’ language) extensions and how they can offer new entries into the stories by creating new characters or presenting new locations.

Canonical Extensions: Characters

Tie-in extensions in the form of comic books help to deepen the characters, especially supporting characters, by delving into their motivations and psychology, or by giving them backstories and origin stories. According to Paolo Bertetti, “the transmedia character is a fictional hero whose adventures are told on several media platforms, each providing details about the character's life” (2344). Actually, motivated characters are the quintessential element of the narration of the classic Hollywood era, which was then reused in the narration of TV series, which were then penned into comic books. In her definition of transmedia superstructures, Marsha Kinder based her analysis on how characters moved from one medium to the next, making them the centre of the narrative universe and the element audiences would follow.

For example, Fringe (2008), in a deal with DC comics, extended its stories and its characters in comic books, which were an integral part of the storyworld, and which included canon materials by offering Easter Eggs to fans and rewarding them for their investment in the narrative universe. Each issue of the second series dealt with a major or recurring character from the show, deepening them by giving them backgrounds. That way, audiences can discover the backstories of Agent Broyles, Nina Sharp, the CEO of Massive Dynamic, or even Gene, Walter’s cow, all of which are featured in the series but not well developed.

Written by actor Tim Rozon (who plays Doc Holliday on the show) and author Beau Smith, Wynonna Earp Season Zero (2017) focuses on the past of main character Wynonna Earp when she was an outlaw and before she comes back to her hometown, Purgatory. The past comes to life on the pages, while it was only hinted at in the show. It is a good introduction to the main character before the show, since Wynonna comes back to Purgatory by bus at the beginning of the very first episode and there are no flashback episode relating her story earlier. Because the two authors of this comic book are part of the creative crew of the show, an actor and a writer, they ensure a sense of coherence in the extensions they write.

In collaboration with Dynamite Entertainment, an American comic book company, NBC Universal launched a series of comic book issues entitled Origins (2008) as an ancillary text to Battlestar Galactica (2004). “Origin stories” are a specific genre related to superhero franchises. M.J. Clarke underlines that,

the use of Origins Stories is influenced by the economic structure of the comic book industry, which continues to produce stories over years and decades. ... By remaining faithful to the Origins (which are frequently modified in their consistency), readers can discover a story without having to navigate in more than 400 numbers of commix. (54)

The goal of these comic books is to create a "past" for the human characters that appeared in the series. The collection of comic books thus focuses on five main characters in 11 issues, spread out over a year: William Adama, Zarek, Gaius Baltar, Kara "Starbuck” Thrace, and Karl "Helo" Agathon. These issues are collected in an eponymous Omnibus. Likewise, Orphan Black (2011) also offered backstories for its “clone club” without disrupting the pace of the show. The stories, tied to the events of the series, focus on the opportunity to better understand the emotions, thoughts, and feelings that exemplify the characters of the show.

It is interesting to note that the authors of these comic book extensions were in close contact with Ronald D. Moore and David Eick, showrunners of the Battlestar Galactica series, which guaranteed coherence and canonicity to the newly created material. In a personal interview, Robert Napton, writer of Origins, explained the creative process:

so every week we would watch episodes and make sure our stories matched as closely as possible to what the television series was doing …we tried to make it feel like it was very much part of the series, so they were untold adventures and we tried to fit it into the continuity of the series as much as possible.

Brandon Jerwa, writer for Battlestar Galactica comic book series Season Zero and Ghosts (2009), confirmed that, “It is my understanding that the comics were passed through Mr. Moore’s office, and they were certainly vetted by Syfy and Universal.” Jerwa also added an interesting input on perception of canonicity versus non-canonicity by fans who can be picky about the ancillary contents and added materials that extend a storyworld:

Most comic tie-ins have a hard time being considered a legitimate part of the canon, and that is simply beyond the control of the creative team. I worked very hard to make sure that I was writing material that adhered to the continuity of the show as closely as humanly possible. I don’t believe in writing a licensed property in such a way as to put forward ‘my vision’ of the universe; I believe very firmly that it is my responsibility to serve the source material above all else.

Canonical Extensions: Temporalities

Comic books as a licensed product can expand the temporalities of the show and tell stories before the beginning of the series and after it ended, as well as fill time voids and ellipses. For example, now in its 11th season in comic books, Joss Whedon managed to keep Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003) alive and to attract new fans without alienating its original fanbase. Blogger and web entrepreneur Keith McDuffee felt that reading Buffy as a comic book after seeing it on television for seven years was strange, but the new format was a good sign because: “the medium lets creativity go completely wild without budget worries.” The comic books focus on the famous characters and created a life for them after the end of the show, making them jump from the screen onto the pages. Sometimes, the comic books told original stories that might seem out-of-character, like the issue in which Buffy sleeps with a woman. That kind of storyline wasn’t explored in the TV show, and comics offer one way to go deeper into the characters’ backgrounds and psychology. Sometimes, the tie-ins do not strictly follow the continuity and become non-canon regarding the stories of the TV shows. For example, DC/Wildstorm presented comic book issues around The X-Files (1993-) that were set in continuity of the show but failed to refer to main plot events (for example, Scully’s pregnancy). “Rather than offering ‘additive comprehension’ to a pre-existing television and film narrative, Spotnitz chose to write licensed comics on their own terms” (Pillai 112).

DC is familiar with offering new adventures for its superhero characters in the form of comic books (which are first published online), going back to the basics. Of course, in this case, the relationship between the comic book medium and the television medium is more intricate, as the TV series are based on comic book characters whose stories are then extended again in comic books, which are created specifically to extend the TV shows’ storyworlds. The creation of the comic book series The Flash Season Zero (2015) set the stories between the episodes of the first season of The Flash and focus on the struggles of Barry Allen as he juggles between his job as a CSI, his love for Iris West, his childhood sweetheart, and his new identity as a vigilante with superpowers. This allows viewers to better understand a part of Barry Allen’s life that was not well developed in the show, adding temporal layers to the stories. The Adventures of Supergirl vol. 1 (2016) also depict the battles of the girl of steel between episodes, as well as her life with her sister, Alex (who is also a new addition in the comic book), and her co-workers at the DEO. For Arrow,

the digital tie-ins offer producers [opportunities] to explore side stories they are unable to cover on screen. In the case of Season 2.5, the 22-chapter comic enabled the producers to fill in the blanks in between the seasons, thus offering more opportunities to explore the dynamics of fan-favorite characters such as Felicity and Diggle. (Bourdaa and Chin 183)

These DC comic books are examples of giving life to a TV show beyond the TV screen, enhancing the timeframe of the stories and providing new content. The characters pass through the screen to live new adventures in comic books. In some cases, the involvement of the series' actor and writer in comic book scripting confirms the desire for consistency in the extensions of the series, whatever the medium used and whatever the objectives.

Canon Divergent Extensions or the Real Possibilities

Finally, comic books can deploy stories that will display a new point of view on the canon: a “multiplicity” (Jenkins, “La Licorne”) or a “what-if story” (Mittell), which will explore new possibilities and new characters.

The second series of Orphan Black comic book tie-ins entitled Helsinki (2016) dealt with clones in the capital of Finland. The readers discover the lives of other clones, how they deal with the discovery of their “condition,” and that they have a caretaker. The comics are written by John Fawcett, who is also a showrunner for the series. The narrative universe is stretched into new possibilities, seen with new eyes, and shown from the perspective of new clones. The introduction of new characters gives opportunities to tell new stories and diverge from the canonical content, especially in terms of the characters’ development and depth.

Battlestar Galactica, after the show ended, partnered once again with Dynamite Entertainment, to publish a new set of comic books entitled BSG: Ghosts (2009), which tells the story of new characters surviving the Cylon genocide. Writer Brandon Jerwa asks in BSG: Ghosts: "And if a squadron of secret agents had also survived Cylon Attack?" For him, comic books are a good opportunity to relaunch the narrative universe by introducing new characters in a well-known storyworld.

The comic books will definitely have to evolve in order to survive because at some point we will end up exhausting the interest of the readers on the narrative continuity. Projects like Ghosts are definitely a good way to test public reaction to new ideas in a familiar environment. (Jerwa)

Conclusion: From One Medium to the Next, From Narrative Extensions to Marketing

This article offers an overview of how comic books are used as tie-in products to extend TV series’ narrative universe. The ambition was not to give an exhaustive panorama but to propose a typology with some examples. I showed that characters’ development, temporalities, and new points of view are narrative angles exploited in comic books to give depth to a storyworld. Of course, this raises issues of labour, authorship, and canon content, which are already discussed elsewhere (see, for example: Clarke, Pillai, Scott). Yet, comic books are an integral part of transmedia storytelling and capitalise on notions of seriality, offering readers new stories, continuity, depth, and character motivations in order to enrich storylines and make them live beyond the screen. However, Robert Napton, in our interview, underlines an interesting opposition between licensing and marketing: “Frankly, comic books are considered licensing and marketing, not official canon. The only TV comic that is canon is Buffy Season 8 and 9 because Joss Whedon says they are, but that is not the normal situation.” He clearly draws a line between what he considers to be a licensed product, in this article what I describe as canonical content, and a marketing product, which could be understood in this article as a canon divergent tie-in. The debate here is clearly on, since understandings of transmedia vary between the perspectives of production companies, which are trying to gain profit by providing new content, the perspectives of fans, who know the storyworlds and the characters extensively and could be very possessive of them, and the perspectives of extension authors, who “have very strict story guidelines” (Jerwa) and have to make their stories fit within the narrative universe as it is told onscreen.


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Author Biography

Mélanie Bourdaa, Université Bordeaux Montaigne

Mélanie Bourdaa is associate professor at the University of Bordeaux Montaigne in Communication and Information Sciences. She analyzes the new television environment and the cultural convergence. She studies particularly American TV series, the phenomenon of fandom in the digital age and production’s strategies (i.e. Transmedia Storytelling). She also teaches courses on Audience and programming, Television and cultures and Transmedia Storytelling.