Meredith Levine is a second year MA student of Cinema and Media Studies in UCLA’s School of Theater, Film, and Television. At Transmedia Hollywood 2: Visual Culture and Design. She sat down with Jeph Loeb, an award winning comic book writer and a television writer/producer, to discuss transmedia storytelling, which is tellling stories across multiple platforms using digitial technology. Loeb currently worked on shows like Heroes and Smallville, among others and currently is working with Marvel.
Meredith Levine: How has your work in comics trained you in transmedia storytelling? Is there a connection between comics and transmedia storytelling?
Jeph Loeb: Any platform that you use to tell stories helps you regardless of the medium regardless if they are bedtime stories that you tell your children or comics or film. Specifically what makes comics unique is that they are a storytelling device that forces you to think both visually and economically. Some might say you are limited by your imagination, but that is not true because someone has to draw it. Also, it is a challenge to understand how to tell a story where, I see this a lot with people who are first writing comics, as to what to put in a single panel. Comics, as obviously as it sounds, don’t move, but people write three movements in a panel, without using ghosting. When I was talking economically, I wasn’t talking in a financial way. it is one of the things that Scott McCloud speaks to. There is a space between comics that don’t exist in film or television, unless you have a jump cut, and the audience wouldn’t understand what is going on. I have always found that comics are cousins to film in that they are in many ways storyboards for the story that you are telling, and so they, as a comic book writer, I was able to utilize my skills as a film writer to make comics.
ML: What was it like being brought onto projects as “the comic book guy?”
JL: One of the challenging aspects when I started out in film and television was not being token comic book guy. My title on Smallville was “consulting producer” and people thought my job was to say “that doesn’t look like Clark” and that couldn’t be further from the truth. I would like to think that my role wasn’t to be comic book guy but to be a writer and a producer that were in the best interest of the show. When we started getting into other elements of the transmedia content online and in digital space, and those were things that were interesting to me, and I could utilize people that I knew in that space and bring them into a new medium. My partnership with Tim Sale was to introduce him to the people at Heroes and he got the job himself. When we decided to do the digital comics, Nanci Quesada was the best editor that I knew that happened to not be working a at the time and it was just putting those two people together. That has been one of my most enjoyable tasks, and those successes didn’t so much have to do with me as the incredibly talented people that worked on them and when the quality declined because they weren’t there, it showed.
ML: So what can you tell us about Marvel TV?
JL: In a general sense, it really speaks to what we talked about at the conference, that it is just reminding people that six years ago all Marvel did was publish, and the studio that produced Iron Man, Iron Man 2, and now The Avengers, and the animation division that does Ultimate Spider Man etc., digital division are all new enterprises largely empowered by now being part of Disney. The ability to be able to have a live television division has everything to do with the partnership with Disney and ABC and it is an extraordinary opportunity for both sides of the company to really build marvel out as a brand and as the individual franchises that we look to promote and see in other platforms.
ML: What skills does it take to work in transmedia storytelling?
JL: The best skill is recognizing talented people. Nothing I have been involved with has been in a vacuum. The challenges in taking any IP into any other platform are best met by empowering the individuals that can work best in that area and that is one of the things that I really admire about Marvel as a company. They go out and find the best people, whether it is to draw a comic book or create a television series or make a movie and when you have people like Kevin Feige and Joe Quesada as our chief creative officer they continue that philosophy that the best way of making the best story that you can is finding the best people and work in an environment that allows their skills to blossom.
ML: You mentioned something kind of controversial in the panel about creative control. Can you please elaborate on that subject?
JL: The most successful franchises have a single vision behind them. Does that mean that every IP is going to have a single vision? No. Every one of those comic books that I have written were written before me and after me and people have built on them and ignored parts. Television is built on a writers room and there isn’t one person who writes every script and the show runner can’t be involved on every part of the show. Having said that, the success of Buffy and Angel was because Joss Whedon is behind them, and the success of LOST is because of Damon Lindelof. When you look at failed franchises it was often because there was not a single vision. You need someone to say “this is a Buffy story and this isn’t.” There are certainly as many instances of things that don’t work as things that do.
We are talking about my personal vision about how shows that are mythological based are presented. The nature of mythology is that it is handed down. Do I think that Star Trek should have ended when Gene Roddenberry decided to stop writing? No. What J.J. did shows that a franchise can exist beyond its original creator. There are some properties that this shouldn’t work. I don’t think the world needs a Harry Potter book not written by J.K. Rowling. Although, she did not write the movies and there is a whole section of the audience that knows Harry Potter to be Daniel Radcliffe, and that can poke holes in my theory. When it comes to comic book films, when they are made by someone who loves the DNA they are successful and when they don’t they are not. Oh, I am going to get in trouble for this.