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Review: Superhero Synergies: Comic Book Characters Go Digital

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Review: Superhero Synergies: Comic Book Characters Go Digital

Several weeks ago, I received an email from a colleague asking me to explain why it is that Captain America: The Winter Soldier had broken the April box-office record for biggest opening weekend: “What’s the urgent need to give a history of contemporary geopolitics from the standpoint of superheroes?” While I didn’t have an immediate, comprehensive answer, Superhero Synergies: Comic Book Characters Go Digital seeks to answer this question (and many more) via an eclectic collection of 13 essays, each one examining various, emergent features of the superhero narrative in the digital age—roughly the last decade and a half.

Editors James Gilmore and Matthias Stork write in their introduction that the superhero genre is “a site of converging media and, as such, offers multiple points of intermedial exchange.” This point is key, since much of the collection is aimed around Henry Jenkins’s notion of “convergence culture” and Jonathan Gray’s definition of “paratexts.” Essentially, the collection of essays seeks to demonstrate how “the form of today’s superhero genre relies on digital technologies,” but Superhero Synergies is more than a rehashing of well-trodden terrain regarding indexicality or a celebration of comic-book culture. Instead, the essays form a rigorous and often provocative collective that, among many of its achievements, argues for these transmedia forms (primarily cinema) to be taken seriously as a reflective expression of contemporary discourses on reformed digital aesthetics and neoliberal politics.

Like many collections, the essays are loosely united around a common theme, but with sometimes divergent or methodologically varied approaches. Gilmore and Stork admit as much, calling their book “a confluence of ideas that at times complement and at times challenge each other,” and in this case, the strategy is put to excellent use, particularly in the corpus of paratexts and various media discussed throughout. Two essays on Hulk and The Incredible Hulk examine how digital technologies have reshaped the character’s presentation across both films. Gilmore views Hulk’s digital body in both films as “part of a larger mise-en-scène about scientific engineering,” while Matt Yockey examines Hulk exclusively, detailing how “the digital is an essential tool by which Lee represents the governing dialectic of the melodramatic superhero: the desire for perfection and the perpetual reenactment of perfection.” A focus on digitized bodies is repeated throughout, but the finest essay in this regard is a short piece by Ben Grisanti’s entitled “Melodrama, Romance, and the Celebrity of Superheroes,” which draws primarily upon theorist Richard Dyer to explain intersections between celebrity, comic books, and multimedia. It’s the kind of straightforward but well-detailed synthesis of various methodological resources that yields new and exciting avenues for further scholarship.

Perhaps most delightful about Superhero Synergies is just how synergistic its scope gets. Aside from expected essays on Marvel and DC film adaptations, there are a number of pieces that roam free from these constraints. For example, M.J. Clarke explains how comic books have been impacted by digital technologies, primarily digital coloring, and attributes several “material and institutional contexts” for these developments. Furthermore, Mathias P. Bremgartner discusses Batman Live, a 2011 stage show which contributed to the intermediality of digital superhero narratives by focusing heavily on “visual live spectacle” and reforming the well-known characters and stories, resulting in a “contemporary circus dramaturgy” and forms a unique addition to the expanding, transmedia franchise.

Lisa Gotto’s piece on the convergence of digital and visual focuses primarily on film adaptations, but does so through an exciting recasting of classic-film theorist Andrè Bazin’s discussion of the film frame, which “produces a centrifugal configuration.” Gotto uses the polyvalence of Bazin’s terminology to proffer “digital masks,” both literal and figurative, within the superhero narrative, then uses these reformed terms to show how mapping and mediation ultimately yield a “digital superhero [that] embraces multiple perceptual modes including principles of interaction as well as immersion.” As a synthesis of “fantastic views,” Gotto’s essay navigates digital spaces of convergence with a stunning degree of precision, exhibiting an inextricable influence of digital effects and spatial orientation.

The crowning jewel of the entire collection, however, is Stork’s own essay entitled “Assembling the Avengers: Reframing the Superhero Movie through Marvel’s Cinematic Universe,” which somehow condenses decades of Hollywood filmmaking strategies into an airtight case for Marvel’s attempt to “reconfigure the market context in its entirety” by comprehensively reforming the notion of a franchise, culminating in the release of The Avengers. For Stork, these developments aren’t merely coincidental, but a carefully strategized business move, “imagined in a corporate-industrial dimension,” that shifted emphasis away from auteurism as a component of franchise filmmaking. Thus, over the course of five preceding films, with features such as postcredits teasers, “team” rhetoric in interviews and press junkets, and an exorbitant $525 million credit line backed by Merrill Lynch, Disney and Marvel embarked to create “almost Pavlovian-trained” audiences that sought each new film as a new addition to this emergent “cinematic universe of convergence.”

Stork’s clarity lays bare his extensive research, which digs not just into the financial logic of revised aesthetic approaches for maximal capital gains, but also film theorist Rick Altman’s definition of “re-genrification,” which finally makes clear that Marvel’s strategies are not new as much as reinterpreted—“a new presentational model of crossover synergy.” Stork’s work here is a must-read for anyone who wants to understand precisely how corporate control yields pop-culture product. I’ll be sending his essay to my inquisitive colleague shortly—along with the rest of Superhero Synergies.

Superhero Synergies: Comic Book Characters Go Digital is available now from Rowman & Littlefield Publishers; to purchase it, click here.