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Media Transformation as Genre Musealization: Superhero Comics in the Digital Age

Daniel Stein, Freie Universität Berlin

This paper sets out to investigate a set of interconnected questions: (1) What is the function of popular genres for processes of media transformation? (2) How do popular genres impact changing media landscapes? (3) How, in turn, do shifts in media landscapes impact popular genres? Superhero comics offer a particularly compelling case study for this type of investigation. Due to their longue durée (76 years and counting) and extensive cross-media spread (comic books, newspaper strips, radio serials, film serials, motion pictures, live-action television, cartoon animation, video games, online productions), superhero comics can teach us important lessons about media transformation precisely because they have managed to adapt to the arrival of new media and compensate for the decline of older media. As Jared Gardner has recently argued, we can read the history of comics as the incremental development of storytelling techniques and interactive modes of communication that have functioned as pre-adaptive advances for the digital era – comics history as a history of twenty-first-century storytelling, as Gardner puts it Projections (2012).

The purpose of this paper, however, is to reverse this gaze in order to make sense of digitization as an impulse that has forced the superhero genre to consider, construct, and consolidate its own historicity. Instead of focusing on the serial proliferation and cross-media spread of the comic book superhero (which mark the centrifugal forces of popular serial storytelling), I am concerned with processes of genre conservation and preservation (the genre’s equally significant centripetal forces) at a time when the original carrier medium, the printed comic book, has become largely obsolete. As I aim to show, different kinds of musealization practices have driven the evolution of the genre in recent decades, often by enlisting digital technology to overcome the essential ephemerality of this type of popular serial storytelling (through practices like archiving, indexing, classifying, annotating, contextualizing, interpreting, and historicizing). As such, superhero comics can be a test case for theories of media transformation that adds a significant historical perspective to a branch of scholarly thought production that is often more interested in predicting what will happen than on reconstructing how we acquire our convictions about what has happened in our mediated pasts (and why).