Tip of the Quill: A Journal
SDCC ’08 and Dead Space: “What Order Transmedia Storytelling?”

Transmedia narratives are really hot right now, especially if the San Diego Comic-Con is any barometer. DC Comics’ Wildstorm is leading the charge, as the imprint announced Resident Evil and Devil May Cry comics, which may or may not be considered canonical; the Wildstorm Gears of War comic is definitely a transmedia extension; Prototype may or may not be; Mirror’s Edge may or may not be; the Dead Space comic prequel definitely is…
From the yes-it’s-canon-we-think department: Dark Horse announced the continuation and then conclusion of Buffy Season 8; another Firefly miniseries that will explain the backstory of Reverend Book; and a comics expansion of the backstory behind the upcoming Star Wars: The Force Unleashed videogame. Meanwhile, Boom! Comics announced a comics continuation of the Jim Henson Company’s Farscape, which is right in line with the JHC’s continuation of Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal in manga already.
From the unsure-if-it’s-canon-or-not department: IDW announced a comic book prequel to the upcoming Terminator: Salvation as well as an immediate comic follow-up to Ghostbusters II, a prequel to next year’s G.I. Joe feature film, and a prequel comic to the upcoming Transformers 2: The Revenge of the Fallen.
Add to this the massive amount of new media experiments such as direct-to-video transmedia extensions like Batman: Gotham Knight; the Watchmen video game prequels; “motion comics” like Stephen King’s N and the Warner Premiere Motion Comics; and the art-inspires-art cross-media cross-pollination of Tori Amos’ Comic Book Tattoo and this year’s SDCC was probably the biggest, murkiest, most cross-media and transmedia-centric con ever.
As we all know by now, anytime anything gets this big this fast, we’re in danger of having another bubble burst. I can already predict the wailing and rending of expensive Armani garments that will follow when – not if, but when – some of these transmedia franchises fail. When I was writing my master’s thesis on transmedia narratives last year, one section I really wanted to dive into but would have required a lot more field research (and a lot more pages) was the idea of how to best deploy a transmedia narrative – and in what order a story should use different media elements. Should a narrative show up in a TV show first? A film? How about a book? Or a comic? Or a game? Right now we’re seeing a massive number of new case studies explode onto the scene, and believe you me, I’m watching all this like a hawk.
If I had to put money on which franchises are the most likely to tank, however, I’d say that the easy bet are those franchises that are exploding onto the scene all at once. Dead Space is the one I’m really watching keenly because there’s so much already tied into it – the comic, the video game (which is the central component to the franchise) an animated comic, and even a (possibly ill-conceived, if Kotaku is to be believed) straight-to-DVD animated prequel. Personally, I think Kotaku’s Luke Plunkett sums up the two strikes this franchise has against it already pretty dang nicely:

Back in the day, a licensed property got itself a comic book series or a cartoon because the fans wanted it, and the property deserved it. Now? Why am I supposed to care about the back-story of a game I haven’t even played yet? Especially when it’s as boring as this?

That’s what worries me: that instead of following up a successful primary component like The Matrix with transmedia expansions (a practice I chucklingly referred to as “soft” or “crunchy” in my thesis), Dead Space is a “hard” transmedia franchise, by which I mean it was apparently conceived as transmedia from the get-go. I think something like this can work very well, if it’s already attached to some existing big name to draw the crowds. If it were Stephen King’s Dead Space, Clive Barker’s Dead Space, Stephen Spielberg’s Dead Space or even, Heaven forfend, George Lucas’ Dead Space then I think this kind of a sweeping launch might work. As it is, it’s just Dead Space with no major reason why a brand-new audience should invest the intense amount of attention (and money) on engaging with it. A transmedia franchise needs a good, solid hook – and so far Dead Space doesn’t seem to really have it. If there’s no single primary entry point to the series, which so far there doesn’t seem to be (both the comic and the animated movie seem to be prequels, so which one comes first?), and at least one of the possible entry points proves to be, as Plunkett says, “boring”, the franchise is in trouble – and the main game hasn’t even launched yet!
Me, I think a transmedia franchise should build up a core audience in a manner appropriate to the context in which it’s being created: if you have a big name or a big budget, go for a wide-audience open in a media form like film or television. If you don’t have a big name or a big budget, I think the best way is to start small and build up a rabid fanbase in a more niche media like comics or novels (of course, the notion that novels are a niche media is a fun one to bat around, but we can debate that in the comments or in another post). Dead Space has apparently invested a lot of money in what is essentially a shotgun-blast marketing effort, doing all the media forms more or less at the same time, and I’m concerned that all the transmedia extensions may simply be perceived as little more than marketing fluff for the central video game instead of quality narrative components. (Worse, I’m afraid they may be little more than marketing fluff.)
I’ve said it over and over, and I’m sure I’ll keep on saying it: Rule One: Don’t Suck. I haven’t seen the animated Dead Space prequel yet, but it seems like it’s teetering on the edge of sucking. The prequel comics so far have been okay, but I don’t know how fragile a from-scratch transmedia franchise might actually be. Dead Space is one to watch for all kinds of reasons, but the big thing that the industry has to remember is that all of this stuff right now is experimental – don’t wring your hands and cry that transmedia storytelling as an entire form fails when one or two (or twenty) of these early experiments crash and burn. It’s a learning process – the best thing we can do is take careful notes, keep experimenting and keep trying out hypotheses.
Me? I’ve been investing some time learning how to write comics. 🙂