Evolutionary Innovation: Moving Hay, Barn Doors, Heavy Machinery, and Joyous Children

John Wanamaker Monorail

How Could I Remember a Monorail I Had Never Seen Before?

The former John Wanamaker store in central Philadelphia — now a Macy’s — has been a popular holiday shopping destination for over a century. The store’s center atrium features a 2,500-pound bronze eagle statue, a 1904 pipe organ, and the wonderfully retro Christmas light show. Yet the current store, while still charming and vibrant, evinces only a shadow of its former grandeur. The Wanamaker store I discovered when I first moved to Philadelphia in the 1970s included nine floors of retail space, with major departments — veritable stores within stores — dedicated to various product categories. The eighth floor housed the toy department and featured a monorail suspended from the ceiling that ferried children around the room to marvel at the toys below.

When I first saw this magical conveyance as a young adult, I was flooded with a sense of déjà vu. I recalled riding the monorail as a child many years earlier. But I didn’t grow up in Philadelphia. I had never been to John Wanamaker in my youth. I lived near Syracuse, New York, when I would have been of monorail-riding age.

As some quick research revealed, these kiddie monorails were installed in a number of department stores in major U.S. cities. In addition to the Rocket Express monorail in Philadelphia’s John Wanamaker, there was a monorail in the E.W. Edwards store in Syracuse — the monorail from my youth. There was also the Santaland Monorail at Meier & Frank in Portland, Oregon, and the Pink Pig monorail which traveled from inside the store out onto the roof of Rich’s in Atlanta, Georgia. There were kiddie monorails in the Kresge department store in Newark, New Jersey, the Herpolsheimers in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and nearly two dozen other locations.

What spurred this flurry of department store monorails? How did so many different stores around the country all install ceiling-mounted conveyances for children around the same time in the post-war era? The answer, it seems, lies in the creative expansion of a product line from a 19th century farm equipment company.

Moving Hay and Manure

Born in 1841, William Louden, the son of Irish immigrants, spent much of his youth working on his father’s farm in Iowa. Louden was reportedly a frail young man, which may have set his mind on methods to reduce the physical burden of farm work.

In 1867, Louden was awarded his first patents for devices to help workers stack and move hay. His hay carrier attached a traditional hay fork to an overhead monorail with counter-weights to make it easier to lift. In 1870, Louden started the Louden Manufacturing Works to build his labor-saving farm equipment. The depression of the 1870s hit him hard, and the business failed in 1876. Louden persisted, however, constructing his equipment and traveling from farm to farm to demonstrate its benefits. In 1892, Louden, along with his brother Robert and an investor named J. C. Fulton, founded the Louden Machinery Company in Fairfield, Iowa.

One of the company’s most enduring inventions was a revolutionary barn door mechanism introduced in 1895. By adding wheels to hang barn doors on a railing, the heavy doors could be slid open and closed with relative ease. “Louden’s Everlasting Barn Door Hanger — It Runs on a Rod” declared an early advertisement. Most modern barn doors still use some version of the Louden system.

Louden Litter CarrierThe Louden Machinery Company found other uses for its rail-and-wheel mechanisms, including facilitating the unpleasant task of hauling manure from inside the barn to a waiting wagon for transporting it to the fields. The Louden Machinery Company was awarded a patent on these manure haulers, which were euphemistically called “litter carriers.”

Louden found other uses for this type of transport mechanism. In 1919, the company developed a monorail conveyor system, and in subsequent years the company’s technology was deployed in a wide range of applications to assist manufacturing production. According to an article in a publication of the North American Hay Tool Collector’s Association, Louden’s monorail crane system assisted the manufacture of Boeing B-29 airplanes during the Second World War and aided materials handling during the development of atomic bombs in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

Riding the Litter Carrier

louden-carrier-hopper-640x524In the July 2005 issue of Farm Collector magazine, A. Clyde Eide recounts the tale of how, as a young boy on his grandfather’s farm in northern Illinois, he was fascinated by the Louden manure carrier that ran from inside his family’s barn to a post 80 feet outside. He was so intrigued that one day, when the adults were otherwise occupied, Eide and his two cousins decided to give each other rides on the monorail conveyance. Things went well until all three children climbed into the hopper together and got stuck when the device came to halt at a location too high to jump to the ground. The frightened children remained swaying in the manure carrier until Eide’s uncle Everitt finally heard their cries for help.

Apparently the notion that the Louden rail-and-wheel system could be used to transport children occurred to others as well. Sometime after the Second World War, monorail trains began appearing in toy sections of department stores around the U.S.

An article on Louden published by the Jefferson County Trails Council of Fairfield, Iowa, questions whether the finished monorail system was manufactured by Louden or another company such as Rocket Express Systems (which is credited in an 1950 article in The Billboard — the “Amusement Industry’s Leading Newsweekly” — as building the first outdoor kiddie monorail). But it is likely that Louden technology was the basis for these department store rides. A December 24, 2002, article in the The Portland Tribune describes the Santaland monorail at Meier & Frank as a “Louden Supertrack monorail” and states that it is the “only survivor of 26 such conveyances built in Fairfield, Iowa.”

And, indeed, Acco (self-described as “a company for the 21st century“) — which was formerly the American Chain and Cable Company and a descendant of the Louden Machinery Company — still sells the Louden SuperTrack, “the pioneer heavy-duty monorail track section” which is “ideal for non-electrified monorail and crane systems with loads up to two tons.”

While most of these post-war monorails have long ceased operation, the Wanamaker monorail was saved from destruction and is currently on display at Philadelphia’s Please Touch Museum.

There’s something charming about a location-specific childhood memory that is shared by many others across the country — all from a 19th century technological breakthrough that became a source of continuous innovation in transporting hay, barn doors, manure, heavy machinery, and joyous children during the holiday season.

The image of the Wanamaker monorail is from the Temple University Libraries Urban Archives (via Humanities magazine). It is believed that the use of a web-resolution screenshot for identification and critical commentary qualifies as fair use under United States copyright law. The images of the Louden litter carrier are believed to be from a U.S. publication prior to 1923 and in the public domain.

Posted in miscellany, technology | Tagged | 2 Comments

Locust Moon Comics Fest: Philly’s Indie Comic Con

Locust Moon Comics Fest 2012

J.G. JonesThis past Sunday, Philadelphia’s Locust Moon Comics & Movies hosted their first annual Comics Festival at the Rotunda in West Philadelphia. Unlike many of the larger comic cons, which are chiefly focused around mainstream comics and popular culture, the Locust Moon fest carries on the tradition of the former Philadelphia Alternative Comic Con in showcasing “alternative/fringe/indie/art comics and zines.” As such, much of the event’s vibe — in addition to the physical layout — was reminiscent of the Philly Zine Fest held a few months earlier at the same venue.

Although many of the tables at the Fest were occupied by comics creators who self publish their works, the event also included industry professionals working for traditional media outlets. Nationally syndicated comic strip artist Terry LaBon was in attendance as was artist J.G. Jones, who is currently illustrating The Comedian for D.C.’s “Before Watchmen” series.

For a photographic overview of the event, see my Flickr set:
Locust Moon Comics Festival 2012

Skuds McKinley Carolyn Belefski and Joe Carabeo Little Baby's Ice Cream Rafer Roberts Terry LaBan
Posted in media | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Soomi Kim: ‘Chang(e)’

Performances at the Asian Arts Initiative “Home: Far and Near”

In the early 1990s, Kathy Chang — also known as Kathy Change — was a common sight on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania. Clad in a skimpy bikini or, on occasion, completely nude, she would dance, twirling banners or colorful streamers while spouting diatribes on the evils of capitalism and the impoverishment of American society. Her activism attracted attention but, one suspects, had little influence on most of the passersby. On October 22, 1996, at around 11:15 AM Chang walked over to a large sculpture of a peace sign and committed suicide through self-immolation.

Chang’s life, work, and death have spurred a number of memorials and artistic works, the most recent of which is “Chang(e),” a multimedia performance piece by artist Soomi Kim. “Chang(e)” was performed as part of the second of two nights of “Home: Far and Near,” a mini-festival of Asian American performance pieces at the Asian Arts Initiative in Philadelphia on December 7, 2012.

Also on the program was “Formosa” by Kelly Zen-Yie Tsai and “Pull: Tales of Obsession” by Traci Kato-Kiriyama and Kennedy Kabasares.

In “Formosa,” Tsai explores different perspectives on Asian women by inhabiting a series of characters: a mid-1600s Spanish sailor, an Asian American hip-hop diva, an eight-year-old adopted Chinese girl, and a 1960s Taiwanese Barbie doll factory worker.

In “Pull: Tales of Obsession,” Kato-Kiriyama evinces the story of a young woman’s relationship with her mother following the death of her father. Built around monologues, recorded interviews, and interactions with her performing partner Kabasares, who performs an aerial act on a trapeze throughout the work.

The previous night of “Home: Far and Near” included works by Gein Wong, Anula Shetty, and Sun Mee Chomet.

The centerpiece of Friday evening’s performance was Soomi Kim’s “Chang(e).” The work unfolds in three scenes. In the first, Kim bursts onto the stage as a masked version of Chang, shouting slogans through a megaphone and haranguing the audience for their apathy and blindness to the state of the world.

Wearing the mask (which Chang didn’t employ in her activist street theater), Kim adds a mythological element to Chang’s protestations. As Kim explained, the mask evokes an image of Cassandra, who was destined to see the future but have no one believe her prophecies.  In light of the recent economic meltdown, Chang’s admonitions about collapse of capitalism seem eerily prescient.

The cacophony of the opening scene gives way to a more reflective mood in the second part of the piece as Kim removes the mask and executes a series of dance movements. Kim performs in front of a life-sized projected video image of herself as Chang, once again masked, performing a visual echo of her live dance moves. In the video, Kim is performing on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania near the location where Chang danced and eventually sacrificed her life. By manipulating the speed of the video — filmed by Gein Wong — we see the daily life of the campus moving past at high speed, oblivious to Kim’s haunting movements.

For the third sequence of “Chang(e)” Kim is joined on stage by Brendan McGeever, who plays a younger version of himself as he and Kim recreate an interview McGeever conducted with Chang in 1995 for a campus radio station. In the interchange with McGeever, we see multiple facets of Chang’s personality: conversational and charming, concerned and troubled, spiritual and visionary, and ultimately misunderstood and tragic. The work concludes with a symbolic recreation of Chang’s final act.

It’s difficult to know what to make of Chang herself. In the early 1990s she was easily dismissed as a throwback to the long-gone era of hippies and the leftist counterculture. In light of the recent economic crises and the rise of the Occupy movement, she can be viewed as a prescient oracle of the perils of unfettered capitalism. Whatever one’s view of her ideology, it’s difficult to come to terms with her decision to commit suicide as an act of public protest.

Fortunately, Kim — while clearly admiring Chang — has created a multifaceted performance piece that presents the contrasts and contradictions of Chang’s troubled life and art.

Photo gallery on Flickr: Performance
Photo gallery on Flickr: Video

Soomi Kim: Chang(e) Soomi Kim: Chang(e) Soomi Kim: Chang(e) Soomi Kim: Chang(e) Soomi Kim: Chang(e)
Posted in media | Tagged , | Leave a comment

New York Comic Con 2012: Recap and Photo Highlights

New York Comic Con 2012

This past weekend fans of comic books, anime, and all things science fiction and fantasy flowed into the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center for New York Comic Con.

In the seven years that the ReedPOP division of Reed Elsevier’s Reed Exhibitions has run the annual extravaganza, New York Comic Con has become a major pop culture event, with an estimated attendance of 115,000 this year.

The line outside the IGN Theatre on Saturday afternoon at New York Comic Con.

The line waiting to get into the IGN Theatre on Saturday afternoon.

With that scale comes the attendant problems, and New York Comic Con showed signs straining at the seams. The IGN Theatre, which hosts the major movie and television panels, seats 3000 — less than half the size of the famed Hall H at San Diego Comic-Con. On Saturday, the theater had programming scheduled until 7:15 PM, yet by 2:30 PM the staff had closed the line to enter the auditorium, stating that many of the estimated 2,000 people lined up to see the evening panels for Evil Dead, “The Walking Dead,” and “Firefly” wouldn’t get in.

Yet, the difficulty of accessing the large presentations provided more time to walk around the show floor, visit Artist Alley, and stroll through through the corridors of the Javits Center to watch the parade of cosplayers. While this year’s New York Comic Con showed signs of encroaching corporate commercialism — with significant presences by traditional companies like Craftsman and Chevrolet (see Knowledge@Wharton, “Consumer Brands Go Geek at Comic Con“) — there was plenty to see in the traditional Comic Con domain of science fiction, fantasy, and horror.

Coco Austin strolls through New York Comic Con

Coco Austin strolls by.

Some of the most enjoyable moments at Comic Con are found not in the scheduled programming but, rather, in the unplanned moments. While crossing the Javits Center atrium heading to Artist Alley, I encountered a small crowd gathering as Coheed and Cambria appeared to perform a short acoustic set. Moments before, Coco Austin strolled past, adorned in her regalia as Cleo from Gekido.  On the show floor, as I approached the Vanguard Productions booth to speak with Jim Steranko, artist Dave Gibbons walked up to chat with Steranko.

As Woody Allen is reported to have said, “80 percent of success is showing up.” And so it is with Comic Con. Despite the crowds, the lines, the missed opportunities. There’s a sense that you just have to be there to share in the experience, and to encounter these moments of serendipity.

Here are highlights from the 244 photos in my Flickr account from New York Comic Con 2012:

Grant Morrison at New York Comic Con 2012

Comic book writer and playwright Grant Morrison.

Spotlight session on comic book writer and playwright Grant Morrison at New York Comic Con 2012.

.
Jim Sternako and Dave Gibbons at New York Comic Con 2012

Jim Steranko and Dave Gibbons.

Illustrator Dave Gibbons chats with Jim Steranko in the Vanguard Productions booth on the show floor.

.
Joe Simon Memorial Panel at New York Comic Con 2012

Joe Simon Memorial Celebration: Angelo Torres, Paul Levitz. Dave Gibbons, Jim Simon, Emily Simon, and moderator Steve Saffel.

The “Joe Simon Memorial Celebration” at New York Comic Con 2012 with Angelo Torres, Paul Levitz. Dave Gibbons, Jim Simon, Emily Simon, and moderator Steve Saffel.

.
Comic Book Artists and Authors at New York Comic Con 2012

Comic book artists and creators.

Comic book creators: artists, writers, and editors.

.
Cosplay at New York Comic Con 2013

Cosplay at New York Comic Con 2012.

Cosplay — costumed characters at New York Comic Con 2012.

.
Posted in media | Leave a comment

San Diego Comic-Con 2012 in Photos

Photos from San Diego Comic-Con 2012

A Photographic Look Back at San Diego Comic-Con 2012

Although the New York Times talked about a sense of “gloom” pervading the halls of Comic-Con this year, people I spoke with were optimistic — both in terms of the business outlook and the mood of the crowd. (See Knowledge@Wharton, “Comic-Con Shines through the Gloom.”)

Comic-Con always exhibits a strong sense of pop culture history, and this year’s event featured retrospective panels on Jerry Robinson and Joe Simon (both of whom we lost this past year); Jerry Siegel, Joe Shuster and Bill Finger (who are the subjects of two new books); and the Annual Jack Kirby Tribute. In one of the most heavily anticipated events, Joss Whedon joined the cast of the cult-favorite television series “Firefly” for a ten-year anniversary panel and a subsequent press conference sponsored by the Science Channel.

There were plenty new announcements and surprises from the major studios including Sony Pictures and Disney. Warner Bros./Legendary Pictures officially announced their reboot of Godzilla, with Monsters director Gareth Edwards at the helm.

And Comic-Con wouldn’t be Comic-Con without the cosplay: fans dressing as their favorite superhero or villain. As always, the costumes ranged from the clever to the fantastic.

Here, then, is Comic-Con International: San Diego 2012 from my perspective in 393 photos. Separate sets are available for several highlights including:

Firefly Reunion Press Conference: Joss Whedon, Nathan Fillion, Summer Glau, Alan Tudyk, Adam Baldwin, Sean Maher, and Tim Minear

The Science Channel’s “Firefly” 10th anniversary reunion press conference with Joss Whedon, Nathan Fillion, Summer Glau, Alan Tudyk, Adam Baldwin, Sean Maher, Producer Tim Minear, and Science Channel General Manager Debbie Myers.

.
'The Guild' and 'Geek and Sundry' at Comic-Con 2012

‘The Guild’ and ‘Geek and Sundry': Felicia Day Jeff Lewis, Robin Thorsen, Sandeep Parikh, Amy Okuda, Vincent Caso

Felicia Day and the cast of “The Guild” and “Geek and Sundry.”

.
Disney Studios panels at San Diego Comic-Con 2012

Walt Disney Studios: Tim Burton, Sam Raimi, Michelle Williams, Mila Kunis, John C. Reilly, Sarah Silverman, Rich Moore, and Chris Hardwick

Chris Hardwick moderates the Walt Disney Studios session with Frankenweenie director Tim Burton; Oz The Great and Powerful director Sam Raimi and actors Michelle Williams and Mila Kunis; and Wreck-it Ralph voice cast members John C. Reilly and Sarah Silverman, and director Rich Moore.

.
Sony Pictures panels at San Diego Comic-Con 2012

Sony Pictures: Kate Beckinsale, Rian Johnson, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Emily Blunt, Neill Blomkamp, Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, and Simon Kinberg

The Sony Pictures session features Total Recall with Kate Beckinsale and others; Looper with writer/director Rian Johnson and actors Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Emily Blunt; and Elysium with director Neill Blomkamp, actors Matt Damon and Jodie Foster, and producer Simon Kinberg.

.
'Resident Evil: Retribution' panel at San Diego Comic-Con 2012

Screen Gems ‘Resident Evil: Retribution': Milla Jovovich, Michelle Rodriguez, Oded Fehr, Boris Kodjoe, Mika Nakashima and Paul W. S. Anderson

Screen Gems presents Resident Evil: Retribution with Milla Jovovich, Michelle Rodriguez, Oded Fehr, Boris Kodjoe, Mika Nakashima and writer/director Paul W. S. Anderson.

.
'Before Watchmen' at San Diego Comic-Con 2012

‘Before Watchmen': Dan DiDio, Mark Chiarello, Will Dennis, Amanda Conner, Darwyn Cooke, Adam Hughes, J. Michael Straczynski, Len Wein and special guest Quentin Tarantino

DC Entertainment presents “Before Watchmen” with Dan DiDio, Mark Chiarello, Will Dennis, Amanda Conner, Darwyn Cooke, Adam Hughes, J. Michael Straczynski, and Len Wein. Quentin Tarantino makes a surprise appearance to announce working with DC on the “Django Unchained” comic book limited series.

.
Remembering Jerry Robinson and Joe Simon at San Diego Comic-Con 2012

‘Remembering Jerry Robinson and Joe Simon': Jens Robinson, Michael Uslan, Anthony Tollin, Charles Kochman, Batton Lash, Paul Dini, Steve Saffel and Mark Evanier

Remembering Jerry Robinson and Joe Simon” looks at the life and work of Batman artist Jerry Robinson and Captain America co-creator Joe Simon with Jens Robinson, Michael Uslan, Anthony Tollin, Charles Kochman, Batton Lash, Paul Dini, Steve Saffel and moderator Mark Evanier.

.
'Siegel and Shuster and Finger' panel at San Diego Comic-Con 2012

‘Siegel and Shuster and Finger': Larry Tye, Marc Tyler Nobleman, and Mark Evanier

Mark Evanier moderates “Siegel and Shuster and Finger” with Larry Tye, author of Superman, and Marc Tyler Nobleman, author of Bill the Boy Wonder.

.
Jack Kirby Tribute at San Diego Comic-Con 2012

‘Annual Jack Kirby Tribute Panel': Stan Goldberg, Paul Dini, Charles Hatfield, Paul S. Levine, and Mark Evanier

The “Annual Jack Kirby Tribute Panel” features Stan Goldberg, Paul Dini, Charles Hatfield, Paul S. Levine, and moderator Mark Evanier.

.
Batmobiles at San Diego Comic-Con 2012

Six Batmobiles on Display

Six batmobiles — from the 1966 “Batman” television series through The Dark Knight Rises — displayed together for the first time.

.
Comic book creators at San Diego Comic-Con 2012

Comic Book Artists and Creators

Comic book creators: artists, writers, and editors.

.
Cosplay at San Diego Comic-Con 2012

Cosplay

Cosplay: From the The A.W.E.S.O.M.-O 4000 to Playboy Bunny Avengers — costumed characters at San Diego Comic-Con 2012.

.
Posted in media | Tagged | Leave a comment

Neal Dhand’s ‘Second-Story Man’

Second-Story Man, Neal Dhand’s feature film debut, is a moody drama that, despite pacing problems and a somewhat meandering narrative, unfolds as a thoughtful meditation on morality.

In cold, snowy upstate New York, Arthur Black (Christopher J. Domig) and his girlfriend Valerie Evering (Monique Low) commit petty robberies of small shops and liquor stores with their young daughter Maria Low (Zaira Crystal) in tow. When their attempt to pull off a slightly larger bank heist goes awry, Arthur’s already desperate existence takes a turn for the worse as he begins plotting revenge against Max Rivers (Danny Hoskins), the bank’s security guard whom he blames for the outcome of the failed robbery.

Arthur and Maria move into an apartment in an old multi-family house where Max and his wife Janet (Lindsay Goranson) dwell on the second story along with their daughter Holly (Lea Mancarella). A quirky elderly couple live in the basement floor beneath Arthur, and a mysterious younger couple, seen only in glimpses, occupy an apartment on the ground floor adjacent to Arthur’s. As Arthur continues to obsessively track Max, he tries to hold together his relationship with Maria and slowly establishes a genuine bond with Max’s beleaguered wife Janet. He also begins to hear conversations through the wall of a neighboring couple who appear to be plotting against Max and Janet’s daughter Holly.

The body of the film becomes a contemplation on the nature of what it means to be a “good” person and the impact of the obsession with vengeance. As the story moves toward its ending, the film’s title gains additional layers of meaning.

Unfortunately, after the crisp first act, the plotting becomes more plodding. The film’s pacing is maddeningly glacial at times and the narrative often strays from the main story line in a way that retards the story’s progress toward its bleak conclusion. The film’s middle act desperately needs tightening. The challenge, of course, is determining what to leave in and what to excise.

Director and co-writer Dhand was in attendance at the County Theater in Doylestown, PA for a Q&A following a screening of the film last night. Dhand explained that the film’s distributor plans to make additional edits for the DVD release (scheduled for June 26, 2012). Regrettably, these planned cuts may do more harm than good. According the Dhand, the scenes featuring the elderly husband and wife who live downstairs from Arthur and Maria will be excised from the DVD release. If true, this is unfortunate. The couple is key to the film’s story, and removing their introduction will make an already too-cryptic plot more confusing and likely cause the ending to appear tacked on and arbitrary rather than the inevitable tragedy that it is.

There are other sections of the film that could be more effectively targeted for trimming. Arthur’s tracking of Max is unnecessarily drawn out and could be told more efficiently. Furthermore, the snippets of conversation Arthur overhears through the wall seem too sparsely spread out. These disturbing voices drive the narrative forward in the final act, yet the story veers away from these plot elements for too long. By removing other scenes from the middle section of the film, these key moments would better drive forward the momentum of the narrative.

There’s also a shocking didn’t-see-that-coming moment that plays like a scene from a different film. (Michael Haneke’s Funny Games comes to mind.) Divorced from Haneke’s meta-movie manipulations, however, the scene comes off like a cheap trick. While effective in the moment, it undermines the impact of the eventual resolution of the narrative and would be better relegated to the editing room floor.

The performances in Second-Story Man are all generally strong. Domig is effective in the lead, as is Hoskins in the supporting male role. Lindsay Goranson provides the film’s strongest performance in the key supporting role of Janet. Goranson’s expressions convey Janet’s interior conflicts and imbue the character with a sense of fragile vulnerability. The deepening relationship between Arthur and Janet forms the film’s emotional heart and is sustained by the performances of both actors.

The snowy exteriors function like an additional character in the film, effectively evoking the tale’s sense of loss and emotional isolation. The artful location work in Rochester, New York is brought to life by the first-rate cinematography of Chase Bowman. The evocative score by Eric Zabriskie helps to heighten the mood and move forward much of the otherwise sluggish middle act.

Second-Story Man is an auspicious debut for director, producer, and co-writer Dhand. During the Q&A at the County Theater, Dhand briefly described the next feature he hopes to direct, a mystery tentatively called The Lighthouse about two men who discover a severed foot. The story sounds like a promising follow-up feature if Dhand can repeat the merits of Second-Story Man while gaining more control over the film’s pacing and narrative flow.

The image from Second-Story Man is from a copyrighted film, the copyright for which is most likely owned by the film’s production company and/or distributor and possibly also by any actors appearing in the image. It is believed that the use of a web-resolution screenshot for identification and critical commentary on the film and its contents qualifies as fair use under United States copyright law.

Posted in media | Tagged | 7 Comments

Media Marketing and the Evolution of Narrative Structure


To no one’s surprise, the highest-grossing movie this weekend was Marvel Studio’s The Avengers, which brought in over $200 million in the U.S. While nothing is ever certain in Hollywood — even a big-budget, effects-laden production can underperform (as Marvel parent Disney found out with John Carter) — The Avengers seemed destined to generate a box office bonanza. The film brings together characters from a series of previous films which grossed a total of nearly a billion dollars — Iron Man in 2008 ($318,412,101), Iron Man 2 in 2010 ($312,433,331), Thor in 2011 ($181,030,624), and Captain America: The First Avenger in 2011 ($176,654,505) — not counting the two previous films starring the Hulk.

Disney’s Marvel Studios has been preparing the audience for this film for several years. After the closing credits of 2008’s Iron Man, an extra scene appears in which Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) encounters S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), who states: “I’m here to talk to you about the Avenger Initiative.” Similar scenes appeared in subsequent movies starring the other Marvel superheroes who comprise the Avengers. Clark Greg’s “Agent Coulson” appears in several of the films, providing character continuity leading up to The Avengers. Additional teases were thrown in for the hardcore fans. In Thor, there’s a brief appearance of a character played by Jeremy Renner, who is listed in the credits as Clint Barton. Fans would recognize the character as the Avengers’ Hawkeye.

All of these maneuvers may seem like typical Hollywood marketing ploys: Team-up the characters from several successful films into one big event movie, build marketing teases into the earlier films, and throw in a crossover character or two. But Hollywood has nothing on the comic book industry, which is a font of marketing techniques based on clever storytelling techniques. Comic books have explored — and exploited — narrative structure like no other medium.

Team-Ups and Crossovers

Comic books have used myriad narrative techniques such as multi-issue story arcs, crossovers, team-ups, reboots, and multiple title tie-ins to “maxi-story” series to sell more comic books. In the process, they may have also blazed a trail for new forms of complex storytelling.

The team-up, as illustrated by The Avengers, brings together multiple superheroes in a single story. Before this weekend’s blockbuster film, The Avengers comic book, created by Marvel Comics in 1963, brought together a superhero team comprised of many of that company’s most popular characters. Before Marvel’s Avengers, there was DC’s Justice League of America, a superhero team-up which first appeared in 1960. And before that, DC Comics assembled the Justice Society of America, which first appeared in 1940.

Akin to the team-up is the guest appearance or character crossover — when one superhero appears in the comic book title of another character. When Spider-Man was given his own comic in 1963, Marvel’s most popular superheroes at the time, the Fantastic Four, made a guest appearance. (“The Fantastic Four think I’m trapped! But they don’t suspect my real power!” Spider-Man declares on the cover of The Amazing Spider-Man #1.) When introducing a new comic book, why not get fans of your most popular characters to give the issue a look?

Many crossovers involve the characters engaged in a fight — even though both are generally “good guys”:  Spider-Man versus Daredevil, the Hulk versus the Thing, Batman versus Superman, and so on. Nearly every combination of superheroes has gone head-to-head in one or more cross-title confrontations. In 1976, even superheroes from competing companies — DC’s Superman and Marvel’s Spider-Man — faced off against each other in a 92-page comic published jointly by both Marvel and DC titled, Superman vs. the Amazing Spider-Man: The Battle of the Century. Currently underway at Marvel Comics is “Avengers vs. X-Men,” a limited series crossover between two of Marvel’s superhero teams.

In The Flash #123 in 1961, DC Comics published “Flash of Two Worlds!” an unusual crossover tale in which the Flash from the 1960s Silver Age of comic books encounters the Flash from the earlier Golden Age of the 1940s.  This issue of The Flash also introduced Earth-Two and advanced the concept of the multiverse in DC comic books – the existence of multiple, parallel worlds, each with its own characters and history. This opened the door to crossover events spanning the multiverse. A story pairing the Silver Age members of the Justice League of America and the Golden Age Justice Society of America became an annual tradition in the DC universe.

Techniques like the team-up and the crossover imply that the characters live in a universe larger than that told in each individual story. The characters inhabit a world in which the individual stories are only small slices. In some instances, the tales in comics explicitly reference their relationship with the real world. In Fantastic Four #11, the members of the superhero team stop by their local comic book shop to pick up the current issue of their own eponymous comic. When they find a long line waiting to get the new issue, Sue Storm (the Invisible Girl) suggests they come back later. The curmudgeonly Thing replies, “What’s the big deal. We know how the stories end!” Within their world, comic books aren’t fiction — they’re reportage.

Expanding the Narrative Form

Throughout the history of these narrative techniques, the story structure of comic books continuously evolved.

Early comic books typically contained short vignettes with one or more self-contained stories within a single issue. Spider-Man first appeared as one of four short fantasy tales in issue #15 of Amazing Fantasy in 1962. The first issue of Spider-Man’s solo comic book several months later, The Amazing Spider-Man in 1963, contains two separate, self-contained stories. (As the cover touts: “2 great feature-length Spider-Man thrillers!”)

Single-issue story arcs quickly became the norm for superhero comics at the dawn of the Silver Age. Within a few years, however, storylines commonly stretched across multiple issues, such as the single story arc in issues #31, #32 and #33 of  The Amazing Spider-Man from 1965-66. Like the movie serials popular in the 1930s and 1940s, issue #32 ends with a cliff-hanger, with Spider-Man trapped beneath an enormous weight of metal as water streams in from the cracked dome of an underwater fortress. To find out how he’ll get out of this jam, readers needed to purchase the next issue of the comic book. By the end of the decade, ever-expanding multi-issue tales were the norm.

Many of these individual techniques – such as the multi-episode story and the story as window into a larger world — are found in other media, of course. Movie serials and television series excel at multi-chapter storytelling. J.D. Salinger’s tales of the Glass family evoke a larger narrative universe of which his tales are but fragments. Many other examples in film, television, and the written word could be cited. Yet comic books have honed and extended many of these techniques to a greater extent than most other forms.

The pinnacle of this expanding narrative form is the multi-issue “event” series like the various “Crisis” stories from DC. Here, the narrative extends beyond the titles in the main series, with the story spreading across additional “tie-in” titles.

Over time, the DC multiverse expanded into many parallel worlds, with dozens of different earths each with its own unique features and characters. If this sounds overly complicated, by 1985 the editors at DC Comics reached the same conclusion. DC undertook a plan to push the reset button on much of what had gone before in order to simplify the mythology of their fictional universes.

The result was the year-long 12-issue series, “Crisis on Infinite Earths.” In the course of the tale, several DC characters die, the multiple worlds collapse into a single universe, and the previous histories of the surviving heroes are erased. In 2005-2006, DC again restructured their universe with “Infinite Crisis,” a seven-issue limited series supported by a number of ancillary “tie-in” titles. In 2008, DC launched “Final Crisis,” a seven-issue series with a wide range of tie-in stories in existing titles like Batman and a number of Final Crisis “one-shot” single issues and additional  limited series.

In a recent example of the expanding narrative structure of these comic book mega-events, in 2011 Marvel Comics’ “Fear Itself” series consists of a prologue comic book, a seven-issue limited series containing the core narrative, dozens of tie-in story elements in Marvel comics such as The Avengers, Hulk, and Iron Man; as well as numerous “Fear Itself” one-shot titles; multiple epilogue stories; and “The Fearless,” a 12-issue spin-off miniseries. To take in every aspect of this extended tale would require reading somewhere in the neighborhood of 146 individual comic books.

The story has now become too expansive for most individual readers to fully take in. It’s a world unto its own, that allows the reader to explore whichever dimensions are of the greatest interest. Follow the events from the perspective of Iron Man or Thor. Or just peruse the core series and ignore the supplementary story elements. The series presents a nearly unbounded narrative universe for the reader to explore.

It is easy to interpret this with a cynical eye as nothing more than a series of cheap marketing tactics designed to pump sales. And, indeed, it is difficult to deny that many of these techniques — the crossover, the team-up, the mega-story event, etc. — are intended to drive sales. And yet, when well executed, something larger emerges.

New Forms of Storytelling

At the extreme edge of these techniques, such as the multi-title story events, new forms of storytelling begin to emerge. These extended series give rise to tales that can be viewed from multiple perspectives — from within a single title or across multiple titles, each with their own story arcs. Although all contained within the form of comic books, these are techniques that are being explored in new media forms such as the transmedia storytelling, which unfolds as a single narrative across multiple types of media, and alternate reality games (ARGs), which use the real world as the platform for complex story-telling.

Much of transmedia storytelling and many ARGs are similarly marketing focused — using websites, Twitter feeds, and real-world games to promote movies and television programs. But many observers believe these forms of storytelling will come into their own as new formats for complex, layered, multi-faceted tales.

It may well be that, as new forms of storytelling like transmedia and ARGs develop, we’ll look back at these comic book techniques as the vanguard in the evolution of these new narrative structures. Born of ploys to sell more comic books, these techniques are giving rise to new forms of creative storytelling.

 

A shorter version of this article appears Knowledge@Wharton: “The Avengers, Comic Books and the Future of Storytelling.”

 

Posted in media | Tagged | 5 Comments

Lyrical Resonance, Reinterpretation, and Renewal

Bruce Springsteen at the Wells Fargo Center - 2012-03-29

Bruce Springsteen at the Wells Fargo Center on March 29, 2012. Photo by Kendall Whitehouse

Bruce Springsteen, March 29, 2012

In the introduction to his song Jack of All Trades last Thursday at Philadelphia’s Wells Fargo Center, Bruce Springsteen noted — as he had on previous nights — that the song was penned before the explosion of the current debate about the 99% versus the 1%. “I wrote this when there was no Occupy Movement, there was no discernible outrage [about] the crimes that have been committed or the damage done to lives all across the United States,” Springsteen said. Recent events have given the song a renewed relevance in the current discourse about wealth inequality.

This is one illustration of how time can enhance the meaning of a lyric, of how changing events let us see new depths in a work of art. And it was not the only example from Thursday’s show.

That night’s Springsteen concert was my first since the loss of E Street Band saxophonist Clarence Clemons, who passed away in June 2011. Yet the spirit of the band’s larger-than-life sax player filled the arena throughout the evening. When Clemon’s nephew, saxophonist Jake Clemons, took the stage for a solo he seemed to embody the spirit of his late uncle. And at the end of the nearly 3-hour show, during the band’s autobiographical anthem Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out, the instrumental accompaniment went silent as Springsteen’s solo voice intoned the lyric, “When the change was made uptown, and the Big Man joined the band.” Springsteen then thrust the microphone into the air for the audience to pay tribute to the missing band member.

For me, the most poignant moment of the evening came earlier in the set during My City of Ruins, a song which Springsteen cast in a new light to honor the memory of both Clemons and former band member Danny Federici, who died in 2008. In introducing the song, Springsteen began, “We’re so glad to be home. The first time we came to Philly, the E Street Band wasn’t even born yet. [We were] four or five guys out of a smoky little bar in New Jersey. But tonight to get done what we need to get done, it takes a village, baby.” Looking out at the audience, he continued, “We got old friends with us. And we got new friends with us. And I see old faces in the crowd. And I see new faces out there, too…. With your help we’re going to tell a story of hellos and goodbyes. And of the things that leave and of the things that remain.”

In between the song’s chorus and the final verse, Springsteen introduced the E Street Band — now 16 members strong. Following the roll call, he asked the crowd, “Are we missing anybody? Are we missing anybody? Do I have to say the names? Do I have to say the names?” He didn’t. The audience remembered well lost band members Clemons and Federici. “Because if you’re here, and we’re here, then they’re here. So let them hear you,” Springsteen said as he held up the mic to let the crowd make its voice heard, calling out to Clemons and Federici as if the combined cheers of the audience could reach them across the void of death.

My City of Ruins was originally written and performed in late 2000 as a paean to the fading glory of Springsteen’s native Asbury Park, New Jersey. Less than a year later, the song took on new meaning following the September 11, 2001 attacks. When Springsteen performed it on the national telethon “America: A Tribute to Heroes” on September 21, 2001, the song seemed to speak directly to our national loss and desire for renewal.

Last Thursday night, the song gained additional resonance from the recent loss of a beloved friend and longtime member of the band. Although the song’s lyrics originally referenced a romantic relationship, it was difficult not to think of Clarence Clemons when Springsteen sang of the absence of a loved one with the words, “My soul is lost, my friend / Now tell me how do I begin again?”

Yet through these layers of meaning and shifting historical nuance, the song retains a consistent message. Like so many Springsteen songs, My City of Ruins offers the hope of renewal and rebirth in the face of loss and heartbreak, of optimism confronting devastation. Of the things that leave and the things that remain.

 

Posted in miscellany | Tagged | 4 Comments

Seeing Is Believing – or Is It the Other Way Around?

The essays in Errol Morris’s recent book Believing Is Seeing (Observations on the Mysteries of Photography) explore a series of mysteries, each based on one or more photographs. Writer and documentary filmmaker (The Thin Blue Line, The Fog of War, Tabloid) Morris uses the photos as the starting point for explorations of what the photos reveal and, in many cases, what they hide.

The photos Morris analyzes range from the relatively obscure (a pair of 1855 photographs of a battle-scared roadway from the Crimean War) to the all-too familiar (the horrifying photos of a hooded prisoner from Abu Ghraib). In each case, Morris wants us to look past the “obvious” truth we think we see to explore the deeper meanings hidden beneath. Much of the material in the book originally appeared in a different form in The New York Times’ Opinionator blog.

The first chapter, “Which Came First, the Chicken or the Egg?” explores — in great detail — two photos taken in 1855 by Roger Fenton, a photographer sent to document the British war in the Crimea. Morris’s obsession with detail is revealed at the opening of the chapter. When his friend Ron Rosenbaum incredulously asks, “You mean to tell me that you went all the way to the Crimea because of one sentence written by Susan Sontag?” Morris replies, “No, it was actually two sentences.”

And, indeed, Morris travels to the Crimea in an attempt to either contradict or confirm Sontag’s assertion in her 2002 book, Regarding the Pain of Others, that Fenton staged one of the two photos by scattering cannon balls on the roadway. One might wonder why it matters, but Morris spends nearly 70 pages exploring Fenton’s photos: looking at how the sunlight falls on the objects in the two photos in an attempt to determine which was taken first, noticing the relative position of stones scattered on the ground, and, yes, traveling to the Crimea to see the spot for himself. Morris’s tortuous investigation eventually determines the relative sequence of the two photos, but why the objects were moved remains something of a mystery.

Another chapter examines the famous “hooded man” photo of a prisoner at Abu Ghraib, and explores who is – and who isn’t – the man beneath the hood. In another, he looks at other chilling photos from Abu Ghraib showing U.S. Army reservists giving a “thumbs up” over the corpses of dead prisoners. Unlike Fenton’s photos, these are pictures we’ve all seen — and have opinions about. Morris asks us to look deeper and reassess what we think we know about these photos. Are they examples of a perverse disrespect of a corpse or critical evidence of an even more heinous act (or, perhaps, both)?

Additional chapters look at whether other photographs were somehow staged or manipulated to suit political ends. A depression-era shot of a cattle skull on parched land was declared a “fake” by opponents of Franklin Roosevelt, who was then campaigning for a second term, because the skull may have been moved to compose the shot. The photographers in Roosevelt’s Farm Security Administration were tarred with the epithet “drought counterfeiters” for manipulating the scene – even though the area was, in fact, experiencing one of the worst droughts in American history.

Seventy years later, a slew of news photos from different photographers that all show a child’s toy lying on the ground among bombed ruins in Lebanon raises similar questions about whether objects were placed in the scene to make a political statement.

In the final chapter, Morris traces the curious and dark history of a photo found in the hand of a slain Union soldier on the Gettysburg battleground. The soldier had no identification, no regimental insignia or personal effects, except a photo clutched in his hand of three small children. Morris follows the trail to identify the soldier and uncover the story of the now orphaned children.

Morris’s obsession with capturing every detail can be wearing at times. At one point in the exploration of the Fenton photos, Morris, having reached a dead end, wonders what to do next. He contemplates collecting all the extant copies of the Fenton photos from around the world. “It seemed painstaking and absurd,” Morris writes, “but would this be any more absurd than what I had already done?” Indeed.

Interviews with various sources are, apparently, reprinted verbatim and in full, where an edited summary might cover the key points in a more readable form. But one senses that this type of editorial refinement would offend Morris, who wants to wring every bit of truth from each snippet of source material.

As fascinating as these studies are (for the reader who has the endurance to follow their threads through all the details), some would seem to have more relevance than others. Why American soldiers took snapshots of prisoner corpses at Abu Ghraib is an important exploration of U.S. military conduct. On the other hand, whether an 1855 photo from the Crimea was “staged” by placing (or removing) cannon balls would seem to be of only arcane academic concern.

But Morris wants to do more than explore the facts behind these specific photos. He wants us to question what we see, to realize that “photographs provide evidence, but no shortcut to reality.” Morris writes: “It is often said that seeing is believing. But we do not form our beliefs on the basis of what we see; rather, what we see is often determined by our beliefs. Believing is seeing, not the other way around.” In this era of political debate by sound bite and news squeezed into 140-character tweets, it’s refreshing to find someone willing to search behind the “obvious” meaning of a headline — or a photograph — to find the deeper truth buried inside.

 

This article was originally published in Knowledge@Wharton.

Posted in media | Leave a comment

Joe Simon and the Great American Hero

Before Captain America was the star of last summer’s blockbuster movie, he was a comic book superhero. The man who co-created the character over 70 years ago, comic book writer and artist Joe Simon, passed away this past Wednesday in New York.

Two months earlier, Simon spoke at New York Comic Con, a convention for fans of comic books and popular culture. It was three days after Simon’s 98th birthday, and as he entered the meeting room at the Javits Center, the enthusiastic crowd sang “Happy Birthday” to the comic hero creator.

The cover of the first issue of Captain America shows the character and his side-kick Bucky fighting Nazis, with the Captain himself socking Adolf Hitler on the jaw. Looking at the illustration now, it’s easy to write it off as typical American wartime propaganda.

But look closely at the issue date. Newsstand comics were routinely dated two or three months later than their actual publication date (so issues that lingered on the shelves unsold wouldn’t appear to be outdated). With a cover date of March 1941, that first issue of Captain America was likely created in late 1940 or early 1941. The U.S. entry into the Second World War was nearly a year in the future.

When Simon and partner Jack Kirby were looking for a villain for their new comic book, they didn’t have to venture into the realm of fantasy – there was horror enough arising in Europe. Concluding that the best comics were the ones with the best villains, Simon thought, “Let’s get a real live villain.” Hitler was the obvious choice. As Simon wrote in his autobiography, Joe Simon: My Life in Comics, “We knew what was happening in Europe, and were outraged by the Nazis – totally outraged. We thought it was a good time for a patriotic hero.” And thus Captain America was created to go up against the rising Nazi threat.

Simon and Kirby did give Captain America a fantastical opponent — the Red Skull, the idea for which came to Simon as he watched hot fudge dripping down the ice cream on a sundae. Simon was struck by how the pattern of the fudge looked like arms and legs, and he began to imagine a new villain – one who oozed all over the place and could be called Hot Fudge. He quickly rejected that idea. He then realized the cherry on top of the sundae resembled a skull and thought, “Red Skull … that sounds good.” And Captain America’s arch-villain was born.

In creating Captain America, Simon sought to devise something different from the spate of superhero characters that appeared following the success of Superman in 1938. “Comics used to be right out of a mold,” he told the audience at New York Comic Con. At industry leader DC Comics, Simon said, “You put all the ingredients in a cake, shake it, twist it around — and out would come a DC comic…. We came out with something different. Jack Kirby’s great artwork was totally different from anything that DC was putting out.”

Simon went on to create other remarkable heroes and villains, many in conjunction with Kirby. The team developed the Sandman, the Blue Bolt, the Newsboy Legion, the Boy Commandos, Manhunter, and many others. The pair also worked in a wide range of genres beyond superheroes, including titles focused on crime, war, romance, western adventure, horror, and humor.

Throughout his long career, Simon worked with many of the major figures in the industry. Stan Lee, the longtime Marvel Comics writer and editor – and one of the best known and most influential people in the industry – began his career working with Simon as, in Simon’s words, his “assistant and gopher.” Speaking at New York Comic Con, Simon said, “[Stan Lee] is a good guy. I like Stan.” He then jokingly added, “I made him what he is today.”

Simon was one of a number of early comic book creators who later fought for the rights to their earlier work. As Captain America continued to generate revenue through comic books and other forms of popular entertainment, Simon sought to reclaim the copyright to the character. His legal battle with Marvel over Captain America was eventually settled out of court.

Throughout his career Simon seemed intrigued by what makes someone a hero. It was a fascination that began early in his life.

At New York Comic Con, Simon relayed the story of an old veteran from the Civil War who visited his school when he was eight or nine years old. The man proudly held an old 35-star U.S. flag and burst into song, “Ah, the old flag never touched the ground, boys. The dear old flag was never down….” He shook the hand of each student declaring, “Shake the hand that shook the hand of Abraham Lincoln!”

A key moment in the tale was Simon’s account of the difference in the reaction of the teacher and the students to the old soldier. As the man rambled on, at one point the teacher, standing behind him, twirled her finger around while pointing at her head. In her view, the old man was a bit loony. Simon and the young students, however, saw something different. “None of us agreed with her,” Simon told the Comic Con audience. “We thought this guy was a great, great American hero.”

It was clearly a story that made an impact on Simon. It serves as the preface to his autobiography published in 2011, in which Simon wrote, “I would always remember the odd little fighting man as I continued in my life-long quest for the great American Hero. Eventually I would find him … and more.”

The version of the story Simon spun at New York Comic Con was long and rambling, often skipping around from point to point. But, even if his narrative did meander, his memory of the event – after close to a century – was clear and sharp. To the admiring audience, he must have seemed much like the character in his own story: aged – even a bit doddering – yet still an icon of an earlier era of heroism.

Update [December 19, 2011]: A version of this article is also published in Knowledge@Wharton.

The image from Captain America includes fictional, copyrighted characters and a copyrighted publication. It is believed that the use of a web-resolution image for identification and critical commentary qualifies as fair use under United States copyright law.

Posted in media | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

University of Pennsylvania Logo
Copyright © 2015 The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania