You Got Spirit, Kid: Transmedial Life-Writing across Time and Space




life-writing, biography, cross-media, transmedia, ontology

How to Cite

Maher, L.-J. (2018). You Got Spirit, Kid: Transmedial Life-Writing across Time and Space. M/C Journal, 21(1).
Vol. 21 No. 1 (2018): trans-seriality
Published 2018-03-14

In November 2015 the progressive rock band, Coheed and Cambria, released their latest album and art-book, both titled The Color before the Sun (Color) (2015). This album deviates from their previous six releases by explicitly using a biographical frame for the art-book, the album, and their paratexts. This is a divergence from the band’s concept album approach, a transmedia storyworld, The Amory Wars (TAW) (2002-17), which fictionalised the life experiences of Claudio Sanchez, the band’s lead singer. When scholars discuss transmedia they often refer to fantastic and speculative fictions, such as the Star Wars (1977-2018), Star Trek (1966-2018), Doctor Who (1963-2018) and Marvel Universe (1961-2018) franchises, and TAW fits this framework. However, there is increasing consideration of the impact transmedia reading and writing practices have on storytelling that straddles representations of the “real” world. By making collaborative life-writing explicit, Color encourages readers to resist colonising ontologies. Framing the life-writing within the band’s earlier auto-fiction(s) (TAW), Color destabilises genre divides between fiction and life-writing, and positions readers to critique Sanchez’s narration of his subjectivity. This enables readers to abstract their critique to ontological narratives that have a material impact on their own subjectivities: law, medicine, religion, and economics.

The terms subject and identity are often used interchangeably in the study of life-writing. By “subjectivity” I mean the individual’s understanding of their status and role in relation to their community, culture, socio-political context, and the operations of power dynamics therein. In contrast “identity” speaks to the sense of self. While TAW and Color share differing literary conceits—one is a space opera, the other is more explicitly biographical—they both explore Sanchez’s subjectivity and can be imagined as a web of connections between recordings (both audio and video), social media, books (comics, art books, novels and scripts), and performances that contribute to a form of transmedia life-writing. Life-writing is generic term that covers “protean forms of contemporary personal narrative” (Eakin 1). These narratives can be articulated across expressive practices, including interviews, profiles, diaries, social media, prose, poetry and so on. Zachary Leader notes in his introduction to On Life-Writing that “theoreticians and historians of life-writing commonly fuse or meld sub-genres [… and this] blurring of distinctions may help to account for life-writing’s growing acceptance as a field of academic study” (1-2). The growing relationship between life-writing and transmedia is therefore unsurprising.

This article ties my research considering the construction of subjectivity through transmedia life-writing, with Emma Hill and Máiréad Nic Craith’s consideration of transmedia storytelling’s political potential (87-109). My intention is to determine how readers might construct their own subjectivity to resist oppressive interpellations. Hill and Nic Craith argue that the “lack of closure” in transmedia storyworlds creates “a greater breadth and depth of interpretation … than a single telling could achieve” (104). They conclude that “this expansive quality has allowed the campaigners to continue their activism in a number of different arenas” (104). I contest their assertion that transmedia lacks closure, and instead contend that closure, or the recognition of meaning, inheres with the reader (McCloud 33) rather than in a universalised meaning attributed to the text: transmedia storytelling therefore arouses political potential in reading communities. It is precisely this feature that enables the “expansive quality” valued in political activism. I therefore focus my discussion on the readers of transmedia life-writing, rather than on its writer(s).  I argue that in reading a life or lives across multiple media the reader is exposed to the texts’ self-referential citations, its extra-diegetic reiterations, and its contradictions. The reader is invited to make meaning from these citations, reiterations and contradictions; they are positioned to confront the ways in which space and time shape life-writing and subjectivity. Transmedia life-writing can therefore empower readers to invoke critical reading practices.

The reader’s agency offers the potential for resistance and revolution. This agency is invited in Color where readers are asked to straddle the fictional world of TAW and the “real” world. The Unravelling Palette of Dawn (2015) is the literary narrative that parallels this album. The book is written by Chondra Echert, Sanchez’s collaborator and wife, and is an amalgam of personal essay and photo-book. It opens by invoking the space opera that informs The Amory Wars: Sector.12, Paris, Earth. A man and a woman sit in a café debating their fate” (n.p.). This situates the reader in the fictional world of TAW, but also brings the reader into the mundanity and familiarity of a discussion between two people. The reader is witness to a discussion between intimates that focusses on the question of “where to from here.” The idea of “fate” is either misunderstood or misapplied: fate is predetermined, and undebatable. The reader is therefore positioned to remember the band’s previous “concept,” and juxtapose it against a new “realistic” trajectory: fictional characters might have a fate that is determined by their writer, but does that fate extend to the writer themselves? To what extent is Sanchez and Echert’s auto/biography crafted by writers other than themselves?

The opening passage provides a skin for the protagonists of the essay, enabling a fantastical space within which Echert and Sanchez might cloak themselves, as they have done throughout TAW. However, this conceit is peeled away on the second page:

This might have been the story you find yourself holding. A Sci-fi tale, shrouded in fiction. The real life details modified. All names changed. Threads neatly tied up at the end and altered for the sake of ego and feelings.

But the truth is rarely so well planned. The story isn’t filled with epic action scenes or glossed-over romance. Reality is gritty and mucky and thrown together in the last seconds. It’s painful. It is not beautiful … and so it is. The events that inspired this record are acutely personal. (n.p.)

In this passage Echert makes reference to the method of storytelling employed throughout the texts that make up TAW. She lays bare the shroud of fiction that covers the lived realities of her and her husband’s lives. She goes on to note that their lives have been interpreted “to fit the bounds of the concept” (n.p.), that is TAW as a space opera, and that the current album was an opportunity to “pull back the curtain” (n.p.) on this conceit. This narrative is echoed by Sanchez in the documentary component of the project, The Physics of Color (2015). Like Echert, Sanchez locates the narrative’s genesis in Paris, but in the Paris of our own world, where he and Echert finalised the literary component of the band’s previous project, The Afterman (2012). Color, like the previous works, is written as a collaboration, not just between Sanchez and Echert, but also by the other members of the band who contributed to the composition of each track. This collaborative writing is an example of relationality that facilitates a critical space for readers and invites them to consider the ways in which their own subjectivity is constructed.

Ivor Goodson and Scherto Gill provide a means of critically engaging with relational reading practices. They position narrative as a tool that can be used to engage in critical self, and social, reflection. Their theory of critical narrative as a form of pedagogy enables readers to shift away from reading Color as auto-fiction and towards reading it as an act of collaborative auto/biography. This transition reflects a shifting imperative from the personal, particularly questions of identity, to the political, to engaging with the web of human relations, in order to explore subjectivity. Given transmedia is generally employed by writers of fantasy and speculative literatures, it can be difficult for readers to negotiate their expectations: transmedia is not just a tool for franchises, but can also be a tool for political resistance.

Henry Jenkins initiated the conversation about transmedia reading practices and reality television in his chapters about early seasons of Survivor and American Idol in his book Convergence Culture. He identifies the relationship between viewers and these shows as one that shifts from “real-time interaction toward asynchronous participation” (59): viewers continue their engagement with the shows even when they are not watching a broadcast. Hill and Nic Craith provide a departure from literary and media studies approaches to transmedia by utilising an anthropological approach to understanding storyworlds. They maintain that both media studies and anthropological methodologies “recognize that storytelling is a continually contested act between different communities (whether media communities or social communities), and that the final result is indicative of the collective rather than the individual” (88–89). They argue that this collectivity results from “negotiated meaning” between the text and members of the reading community. This is a recognition of the significance held by readers of life-writing regarding the “biographical contract” (Lejeune 22) resulting from the “rationally motivated inter subjective recognition of norms” (Habermas n.p.).  Collectivity is analogous to relationality: the way in which the readers’ subjectivity is impacted upon by their engagement with the storyworld, helixed with the writer(s) of transmedia life-writing having their subjectivity impacted upon by their engagement with reader responses to their developing texts. However, the term “relationality” is used to slightly different effect in both transmedia and life-writing studies.
Colin Harvey’s definition of transmedia storytelling as relational emphasises the relationships between different media “with the wider storyworld in question, and by extension the wider culture” (2). This can be juxtaposed with Paul John Eakin’s assertion that life-writing as a genre that requires interaction between the author and their audience: “autobiography of the self but the biography and autobiography of the other” (58).  It seems to me that the differing articulations of “relationality” arising from both life-writing and transmedia scholarship rely on, but elide, the relationship between the reader and the storyworld. In both instances it is left to the reader to make meaning from the text, both in terms of understanding the subject(s) represented in relation to their own, and also as the nexus between the transmedia text, the storyworld, and the broader culture. The readers’ own experiences, their memories, are central to this relationality.

The song “Colors” (2015), which Echert notes in her essay was the first song to be written for the album, chronicles the anxieties that arose after Sanchez and Echert discovered that their home (which they had been leasing out) had been significantly damaged by their tenants. In the documentary The Physics of Color, both Echert and Sanchez speak about this song as a means for Sanchez to reassert his identity as a musician after an extended period where he struggled with the song-writing process. The song is pared back, the staccato guitar in the introduction echoing a similar theme in the introduction to the song “The Afterman” (2012) which was released on the band’s previous album. This tonal similarity, the plucked electric guitar and the shared rhythm, provides a sense of thoroughness between the songs, inviting the listener to remember the ways in which the music on Color is in conversation with the previous albums. This conversation is significant: it relies on the reader’s experience of their own memory. In his book Fantastic Transmedia, Colin Harvey argues that memories are “the mechanisms by which the ‘storyworld’ was effectively sewn together, helping create a common diegetic space for me—and countless others—to explore” (viii). Both readers’ and creators’ experiences of personal and political time and space in relation to the storyworld challenge traditional understandings of readers’ agency in relation to the storyworld, and this challenge can be abstracted to frame the reader’s agency in relation to other economic, political, and social manifestations of power.

In “The Audience” Sanchez sings:

This is my audience, forever one
Together burning stars
Cut from the same disease
Ever longing what and who we are

In the documentary, Sanchez states that this song is an acknowledgement that he, the band and their audience are “one and the same in [their] oddity, and it’s like … family.” Echert echoes this, referring to the intimate relationships built with fans over the years at conventions, shows and through social media: “they’ve superseded fandom and become a part of this extended family.” Readers come to this song with the memory of TAW: the memory of “burning Star IV,” a line that is included in the titles of two of Coheed’s albums (Good Apollo, I’m Burning Star IV Vols. 1 (2005) and 2 (2007), and to the Monstar disease that is referenced throughout Second Stage Turbine Blade, both the album (2002) and the comic books (2010). As a depiction of his destabilised identity however, the lyrics can also be read as a poetic commentary on Sanchez’s experiences with renegotiating his subjectivity: his status as an identity that gains its truth through consensus with others, an audience who is “ever longing what and who we are.” In the documentary Sanchez states “I could do the concept thing again with this album, you know, take it and manipulate it and make it this other sort of dimension … but this one … it means so much more to be … I really wanted this to be exposed, I really want this to be my story.” Sanchez imagines that his story, its truth, its sacredness, is contingent on its exposure on being shared with an audience. For Sanchez his subjectivity arises from on his relationality with his audience. This puts the reader at the centre of the storyworld. The assertion of subjectivity arises as a result of community.

However, there is an uncertainty that floats in the lacunae between the texts contributing to the Color storyworld. As noted, in the documentary, both Echert and Sanchez speak lovingly of their relationships with Coheed audiences, but Sanchez goes on to acknowledge that “there’s a little bit of darkness in there too, that I don’t know if I want to bring up… I’ll keep that a mystery,” and some of the “The Audience” lyrics hint at a more sinister relationship between the audience and the band:

Thieves of our time
Watch as they rape your integrity
March as the beat suggests.

One reader, Hecatonchair, discusses these lyrics in a Reddit post responding to “The Audience”. They write:

The lyrics are pretty aggressive, and could easily be read as an attack against either the music industry or the fans. Considering the title and chorus, I think the latter is who it was intended to reach, but both interpretations are valid.

This acknowledgement by the poster that there the lyrics are polyvalent speaks to the decisions that readers are positioned to make in responding to the storyworld.

This phrase makes explicit the inconsistency between what Sanchez says about the band’s fans, and what he feels. It is left to the reader to account for this inconsistency between the song lyrics and the writers’ assertions.  Hecatonchair and the five readers who respond to their post all write that they enjoy the song, regardless of what they read as its aggressive position on the band’s relationship with them as audience members. In identifying as both audience members and readers with different interpretations, the Reddit commentators recognise their identities in intersecting communities, and demonstrate their agency as subjects. Goodson and Gill invoke Charles Taylor’s assertion that one of the defining elements of “identity” is a “defining community,” that is “identity is lived in social and historical particulars, such as the literature, philosophy, religious teaching and great conversations taking place along one’s life’s journeys” (Goodson and Gill 27).

Harvey identified readers as central to transmedia practices. In reading a life across multiple media readers assert agency within the storyworld: they choose which texts to engage with, and how and when to engage with them. They must remember, or more specifically re-member, the life or lives with which they are engaging. This re-membering is an evocative metaphor: it could be described as Frankensteinian, the bringing together of texts and media through a reading that is stretched across the narrative, like the creature’s yellow skin. It also invokes older stories of death (the author’s) and resurrection (of the author, by the reader): the murder and dismemberment of Osiris by his brother Set, and Isis, Osiris's wife, who rejoins the fragmented pieces of Osiris, and briefly brings him back.

Coheed and Cambria regularly cite musical themes or motifs across their albums, while song lyrics are quoted in the text of comic books and the novel. The readers recognise and weave together these citations with the more explicitly autobiographical writing in Color. Readers are positioned to critique the function of a canonical truth underpinning the storyworld: whose life is being told? Sanchez invokes memory throughout the album by incorporating soundscapes, such as the sounds of a train-line on the song “Island.” Sanchez notes he and his wife would hear these sounds as they took the train from their home in Brooklyn to the island of Manhattan. Sanchez brings his day-to-day experiences to his readers as overlapping but not identical accounts of perspectives. They enable a plurality of truths and destabilise the Western focus on a singular or universal truth of lived experience.

When life-writing is constructed transmedially the author must—of necessity—relinquish control over their story’s temporality. This includes both the story’s internal and external temporalities. By internal temporality I am referring to the manner in which time plays out within the story: given that the reader can enter into and engage with the story through a number of media, the responsibility for constructing the story’s timeline lies with the reader; they may therefore choose, or only be able, to engage with the story’s timeline in a haphazard, rather than a chronological, manner. For example, in Sanchez’ previous work, TAW, comic book components of the storyworld were often released years after the albums with which they were paired. Readers can only engage with the timelines as they are published, as they loop back through and between the storyworld’s temporality.

The different media—CD, comic, novel, or art-book—often represent different perspectives or experiences within the same or at least within overlapping internal temporalities: significant incidences are narrated between the media. This results in an unstable external temporality, over which the author, again, has no control. The reader may listen to the music before reading the book, or the other way around, but reading the book and listening to the music simultaneously may not be feasible, and may detract from the experience of engaging with each aspect of the storyworld. This brings us back to the importance of memory to readers of transmedia narratives: they must remember in order to, as Harvey says, stitch together a common “diegetic space.” Although the author often relinquishes control to the external temporality of the text, placing the reader in control of the internal temporality of their life-writing destabilises the authority that is often attributed to an auto/biographer. It also makes explicit that transmedia life-writing is an ongoing project. This allows the author(s) to account for “a reflexive process where individuals take the opportunity to evaluate their actions in connection with their intentions and thus ‘write a further part’ of their histories” (Goodson and Gill 33).

Goodson and Gill note that “life’s events are never linear and any intention for life to be coherent and progressive in accordance with a ‘plan’ will constantly be interrupted” (30). This is why transmedia offers writers and readers a more authentic means of engaging with life-writing. Its weblike structure enables readers to view subjectivity through a number of lenses: transmedia life-writing narrates a relational subjectivity that resists attempts at delineation. There is still a “continuity” that arises when Sanchez invokes the storyworld’s self-referential citations, reiterations, and contradictions in order to “[define] narratives within a temporal, social and cultural framework” (Goodson and Gill 29), however transmedia life-writing refuses to limit itself, or its readers, to the narratives of space and time that regulate mono-medial life-writing. Instead it positions readers to “unmask the world and then change it” (43).


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———. In Keeping Secrets of Silent Earth: 3. New York: Equal Vision Records, 2003.

———. Good Apollo I’m Burning Star IV, Vol. 1: From Fear through the Eyes of Madness. New York: Columbia, 2005.

———. Good Apollo I’m Burning Star IV, Vol. 2: No World for Tomorrow. New York: Columbia, 2007.

———. The Year of the Black Rainbow. New York: Columbia, 2010.

———. The Afterman: Ascension. Los Angeles: Hundred Handed/Everything Evil, 2012.

———. The Afterman: Descension. Los Angeles: Hundred Handed/Everything Evil, 2013.

———. The Colour before the Sun. Brooklyn: the bag.on-line.adventures and Everything Evil Records, 2015.

———. “The Physics of Color” Documentary DVD. Brooklyn: Everything Evil Records, 2015. 

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———. The Ethics of Life Writing. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2004.

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———, Gus Vasquez, et al. The Amory Wars: The Second Stage Turbine Blade Ultimate Edition. Los Angeles: BOOM! Studios, 2010.

———, Peter David, Chris Burnham, et al. In Keeping Secrets of Silent Earth: 3 Ultimate Edition. Los Angeles: BOOM! Studios, 2010.

———, and Christopher Shy. Good Apollo I’m Burning Star IV, Vol. 1: From Fear through the Eyes of Madness. Los Angeles: Evil Ink Comics, 2005.

———, and Peter David. Year of the Black Rainbow. Nashville: Evil Ink Books, 2010.

———, and Nathan Spoor, The Afterman. Los Angeles: Evil Ink Comics/Hundred Handed Inc., 2012.

Author Biography

Laura-Jane Maher, Monash University

LJ Maher has completed her PhD at Monash University. Her thesis, 99 Problems, examines transmedial life-writing in relation to questions of ontology and otherness. She teaches literature at both Monash and Deakin Universities, lecturing across supernatural literature, genre studies, narratology and adaptation studies. She has spoken at public events such as Cherchez la Femme’s "Feminism and Academia" and at Midsumma's "Invisible Queers". Her current research focuses on writerly vulnerability in adaptations, in pursuit of radical softness. She lives in Melbourne with an emotionally withholding cat.