copyright 2006, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media

Jump Cut, No. 48, winter 2006

Smallville and New Media mythmaking (cont'd)

Some pre-Internet fan communities are famous for seeking a connection with producers to achieve a certain goal. Jenkins suggested in 1992 that

“the history of media fandom is at least in part the history of a series of organized efforts to influence programming decisions…many have traced the emergence of an organized media fan culture to late 1960s efforts to pressure NBC into returning Star Trek to the air” (28).

The WB, fully cognizant of the effectiveness of word-of-mouth marketing and the ability of fan communities to organize themselves, uses “exclusive” newsletters and “The WB Street Team” for viral marketing purposes.[17] Smallville fans are encouraged to participate in what is essentially a grassroots movement for increasing the show’s popularity. The website reads,

“Here’s how it works: All you have to do is look out for special Street Team e-mails for member-only access to show photos, trailers, interviews and other great features you can forward to your friends. It’s that easy! We'll give you the opportunity to get lots of great stuff, like DVDs, soundtracks, exclusive gear from The WB and more!”[18]

This call to arms works on several levels — it suggests that fans can be members of a “team,” it offers the chance of free stuff, and it requires a form of information dissemination that is easy and highly familiar to young consumers — forwarding emails. The WB Street Team amounts to a highly effective form of viral marketing that gives youth consumers a sense of productivity and autonomy, playing upon the idea in new media theory that identity is constructed by choices in media consumption. Lev Manovich writes that

“by following an interactive path, one does not construct a unique self but instead adopts already pre-established identities” (129).

In this way, a young consumer affiliating herself with Smallville is in essence declaring that show part of her identity, which also ties in to both the popularity of role-playing forums for the show and the fact that many fans choose a screen name which clearly identifies their emotional connection to a particular character.[19]

Central behind the effectiveness of WB-run websites like the Torch and the Ledger is precisely this willingness of mainstream fans to invest in an overall world of the show — in a sense, the willingness to believe that Smallville exists. This concept of concrete geography for a fictional place sets Smallville’s Internet offerings apart from those of any other show today. Reviewers for the series premiere in fall 2001 cited the nostalgic aspect of the producers’ vision of a rural town; Brandon Easton in The Boston Herald wrote,

“Smallville, Kansas is an idyllic farm community, the quintessential Normal Rockwell, American dream come to life…[a] land of white-picket fences and wholesome family values” (44).

Certainly the average U.S. television viewer would be interested in escaping to a nostalgic Midwestern utopia while watching an actual episode, but Smallville extends far past its onscreen textual boundaries. Smallville.net, established by The WB and originally part of the extra online content linked to the release of the soundtrack CD, establishes Smallville as a virtual world with an interactive, almost tangible sense of geography.[20] An interactive, scrollable map with links to town webpages (the Talon coffee house has a webpage, the Kent Farm has a site for their organic produce, etc.), Smallville.net encourages viewers to think of Smallville as a real place. One particularly interesting thread on the Torch message board ran for a couple weeks under the topic, “Does Smallville exist?” NIGHTKEEPR suggested,

“if Smallville exists in your mind and in your fantasies, a place where people are good to one another and extraordinary things happen all of the time and the town isn't littered with bums and graffiti and there is no such thing as racism. I think that would be a marvelous place, and maybe if we like it enough we will make our own smallvilles where we live. just a thought” (March 25, 2003).

This comment, certainly made in the spirit of the show’s morality, takes the idea of Smallville as a virtual place quite seriously, which corresponds to Lev Manovich’s assertion that

“we need to take into account the new way in which space functions in computer culture — as something traversed by a subject, as a trajectory rather than an area” (279).

Another fan on the Torch message board summed up the idea of real/virtual spaces quite nicely by stating, “Smallville exists, it's just around the bend from Pleasantville” (50Cynth, March 25, 2003). The parallel between Smallville and Pleasantville (Gary Ross, 1998) may be a topic for another paper, but the fact that the show’s fans draw this comparison between two cultural products involving distinctly nostalgic constructions of place indicates a willingness to view space as existing in an abstract sense, rather than simply as a longitude and latitude.

Manovich notes that

“interacting with computerized data and media has been consistently framed in spatial terms.”

Although none of The WB’s websites adhere to the definition of a game, they do in fact encourage the productive navigation of space common to virtual reality video games, often in ways which connote the subversive fan practice of hacking (272). The labyrinthine structure of pages that branch off Smallville.net and the Torch and Ledger encourages active participation in a virtual world that rarely suggests to the navigator that she might be viewing a fictional text. Two web pages are particularly interesting in this respect: the LuthorCorp homepage and Chloe’s desktop.

In order to “remotely access” Chloe’s computer, a user must know to click on the crow’s eye on the front page of the Torch, which then leads to a pop-up window asking for user ID and password. This information is not readily available; finding user IDs and passwords is a frequent thread on The WB’s message boards. Once the user enters the correct information, she finds a generic-looking desktop with icons that lead to extra-textual material such as character “candid” photos, MS Word documents of Torch articles, and the electronic “Wall of Weird,” essentially a database of all the monsters-of-the-week which Chloe has investigated on the show. The ability to hack into Chloe’s computer suggests that the computer itself exists in physical reality. The site reproduces a traditional interface down to the smallest detail, for when a user clicks on “Chloe’s HD,” up pops a message that reads,

“You cannot access this directory from your current location. Please contact Technical Support if you have any questions.” [21]

Further contributing to the idea of Smallville as a real space is the website to LuthorCorp, which can be accessed as a link off the Ledger or Smallville.net and closely mimics the format of a real corporate website. Although a header for Warner Brothers Studios appears at the top of the page, it’s unobtrusive and barely noticeable (none appears on Chloe’s desktop.) The site includes a corporate overview, profiles of the board of directors, a detailed listing of job opportunities, and an investor center with “real-time” stock quotes where, with the proper user ID and password, a user can access streaming video of Lionel Luthor addressing stockholders, using words like “synergy” with no discernable irony.[22] Smallville fans can also access the LuthorCorp Intranet, which includes Lex Luthor’s personal email — but again, this requires a password.

And yet The WB’s attempts to instill a sense of place into the show’s extra-textual materials still provide a jumping-off point for further fan exploration. One fan-run website, “Smallville Life,” expands upon the show's canon by providing a tourist guide to the town, complete with maps, population information, a virtual cemetery, and average rainfall and SAT statistics. Interestingly enough, this site's front page divides links up into two categories —  “Reality,” which lists links to information about the show and the Superman myth, and “Illusion,” which consists of the Smallville town information the page’s author has fabricated. Part of the “Illusion” section includes the “Smallville Hackers’ Society,” which aims to deliver the proper user IDs and passwords to Smallville fans, with the caveat,

“We do realize that it is thoroughly unlikely that an internet town guide would have a page showing you how to hack into its town websites. In this case you'll have to assume that we hacked into this site and planted our own page” (“Smallville Life”).

This winking mention of illusion versus reality indicates a greater willingness on the part of the site’s authors to commit to a virtual world, even as they know full well that Smallville exists only as a fictional space. Although the necessity of “hacking” connects to historically subversive fan activities, the fact that users must navigate a variety of pages (and in several cases, buy the DVD or regularly read the Torch) to amass the information that enables entry into extra-textual spaces suggests that Smallville’s marketers have intentionally tapped into an active audience that for the most part understands and appreciates a game-like approach to seeking information on the Internet.

This concept of television narrative as game world may be a bit of a stretch. It’s certainly not in the scope of this paper to explore the effect video games have had on the cognitive processes of U.S. youth. Suffice it to say here that even the idea of building the possibility of interaction and addition into the narrative itself comes from computer games such as Doom (1993). As Manovich points out,

“By releasing detailed descriptions of game formats and a game editor, id software also encouraged the players to expand the game, creating new levels … hacking and adding to the game became an essential part of the game” (245).

I think this earlier example of fan inclusion in the production process is worth mentioning. Although independent fan productions such as fanfiction are miles away from adding levels to a video game, it’s worth considering the possibility that the producers intend for fans to read subtext into Smallville. Jenkins notes,

“Room for participation and improvisation is being built into new media franchises,” and he goes further to suggest that new media products must reflect an understanding of fan cultures in order to be successful (2002, 164).

Though much of this participatory culture is geared towards the youthful mainstream fan, most improvisation is more likely to occur among cult fans, the same fans who write fanfiction and tend to eschew The WB’s fan forums but rather participate in forums established and run by other fans.

Jenkins and other writers have thoroughly explored the processes behind fanfic writing in the past. One of the most popular topics for study has been the proliferation of “slash” writing, a genre of fanfiction which usually includes homoeroticism between main characters of a television show.[23] Smallville’s producers demonstrate a clear understanding of the ways in which subtext inserted into the show’s narrative will encourage the fannish appropriation of those suggestions. The pilot episode of the series includes a scene in which Clark gives Lex CPR; on the commentary track for the episode, Miles Millar states, “I love the idea of them kissing,” to which Alfred Gough responds, “Why not?”[24] Even the marketing of the show has included references to Clark/Lex slash: the April Fools’ issue of the WB Insider newsletter included a link with pictures of Clark and Lex with the text, “They’ve been friends forever. But does one of them care TOO much?” (April 1, 2004). Clicking on the link directed the reader to a page stating “April Fools,” but the willingness of Smallville’s marketers to publicly refer to the homoeroticism between Clark and Lex certainly indicates an interest in appealing to cult as well as mainstream fans.

Even with the inclusion of moments in the television text which encourage an against-the-grain reading of Smallville, fanfiction remains the greatest example of how consumers subvert the original meaning and make the show their own. Punk Maneuverability, a veteran X-Files fanfic author who made the transition to writing Smallville slash, notes,

“Fanfic can deal with, or ignore, canon at will. Each author can pick and choose what elements of the show to keep and which to discard. There’s more choices with fanfic, more universes to create and destroy” (March 23, 2004).

As I mentioned above, Manovich points to the idea of identity construction through the act of choice, insisting,

“Every hypertext reader gets her own version of the complete text by selecting a particular path through it…New media objects assure users that their choices — and therefore, their underlying thoughts and desires — are unique, rather than preprogrammed” (42).

Although he refers specifically to the act of web navigation here, this idea applies directly to Smallville’s WB-approved online virtual world, as well as the way we might imagine the cult and mainstream fans of Smallville consuming the text in a variety of formats.

Conclusion

Of course, finding identity through narrative consumption has in some respect been happening since cavemen drew pictures on walls. The ability of a consumer to choose from an indescribably vast array of narratives and use these texts as tools to construct how she would like to be perceived to the outside world, however, gets closer to Manovich’s vision of the effect new media texts have on identity. Although declaring one's fan affiliation used to carry with it a Trekkie-like social stigma, the sheer proliferation of information available has privileged the act of choice as a necessary reaction to increased media options. As Jenkins wrote in 1992, popular culture representations vilified the fan as

“a 'fanatic' or false worshiper, whose interests are fundamentally alien to the realm of ‘normal’ cultural experience and whose mentality is dangerously out of touch with reality” (15).

Jenkins' use of the word “reality” relates to the way in which the idea of consuming a narrative like Smallville as a world extending past the television text itself has changed from a subversive, fan-propelled process to an explicitly stated goal of the show’s producers.

Whereas studies of fan culture in the past have relied upon drawing a distinction between the typical consumer of a television text and the more rabid fan interested in immersing herself in a fictional universe, it’s becoming clear that the confluence of factors surrounding the transition to a culture of convergence encourages all fans, cult or mainstream, to invest time, effort, and money in a narrative that extends far beyond the TV screen. As Jenkins writes,

“If media convergence is to become a viable corporate strategy, it will be because consumers have learned new ways to interact with media content” (2003, 291).

As we have seen, fans — particularly fanfic writers — continue to appropriate the “official” material of the show by picking and choosing topics for further exploration, thereby piecing together identity from prefabricated cultural products and using that process of choice as a jumping-off point for independent cultural production and distribution across the Internet. One of the best websites to point to in this regard is the Smallville Virtual Season, whose webmasters assemble various fanfic writers to conspire on episodic storylines which closely mimic the show's canon and structure, yet take the characters in entirely different directions.[25] No matter how much extra-textual information Smallville’s producers throw on the Internet, fan desire to create and subvert will never entirely be extinguished.

Yet in all the discourse surrounding the production, marketing, and consumption of Smallville, one fact remains abundantly clear. The story is about Superman, and Superman represents the ultimate figure for the socially unsure: a clumsy and awkward geek on the outside, a charming, powerful, moral superhero on the inside. As one reviewer of Smallville put it,

“Clark’s an outsider, no matter how beautiful, fast or powerful he is. He is, in that sense, every teenager who wants the prettiest girl in school but for one reason or another can’t have her” (Oxman, 46).

I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that the character of Superman speaks to most Americans in this way, at least those of us who aren’t (or weren’t) football stars or homecoming queens in high school. I discussed how Smallville was marketed in a way to prevent teenagers from finding Clark Kent “uncool,” and I think this speaks to Superman’s fundamental flexibility — Superman can always be altered to seem cool to a younger generation, but only if he speaks to each new generation in a language they understand.


Notes

1. The WB’s success can in many ways be attributed to the decision to emphasize children’s programming; The WB is singularly responsible for the import of Pokemon (the TV series, at least) to the U.S., whose American-translated pilot aired on Kids WB on September 8, 1998. Kids WB also aired reruns of Batman: The Animated Series, which began in 1992 on Fox Kids and proved extremely popular among not only kids but also older comic book fans.

2. The WB managed to secure this reputation mostly during the 1998-1999 season. See Diane Mermigas, “Defying the Odds at the WB,” Electronic Media, (January 25, 1999), 75; Ron Givens, “Hot WB Rides a Teen Wave,” New York Daily News, (February 2, 1999), 31; Lynette Rice, “The WB Takes a Bite out of Teen Audience,” The Hollywood Reporter, (October 7, 1999), for example.

3. In fact, Superman’s connection with the discourse surrounding 9/11 extended past the inevitable Smallville discussion. On October 20, 2001, VH1, AOL, Miramax and Cablevision presented a fund-raising concert at Madison Square Garden to benefit 9/11 victims and their families. Among the most heralded of the performances was that of Five for Fighting, who played their song “Superman” — a song that VH1 has been referring to ever since as 9/11’s “unofficial anthem.” The lyrics to “Superman” are written from Superman’s point of view, with the explicit suggestion that Superman, too, has dreams and fears and “the right to dream.” Lyrics can be found here:
http://www.lyrics007.com/Five%20For%20
Fighting%20Lyrics/Superman%20Lyrics.html
.
Maudlin, yes. But it was also capable of emotionally encapsulating a post-9/11 sorrow, and maybe, just maybe, a bit of disappointment that Superman didn’t actually show up.

4. The many incarnations of Superman have imagined the character’s youth in different ways, but Smallville appears to take its primary inspiration from Richard Donner’s 1978 film Superman, which briefly presented teen Clark Kent as lusting after Lana Lang, running after the school bus, and longing to join the football team. Smallville’s pilot episode included all three of these elements, reworked for a cooler, cuter Clark Kent, yet still grounded in the idea that Superman in his teen years was largely unpopular and a bit on the dorky side.

5. The presence of the Metropolis-based Luthor Corporation in Smallville is a result of Lionel Luthor’s interest in progressive farming practices. In the pilot episode, Lionel sends (banishes) the rebellious, heavy-drinking Lex to Smallville to manage LuthorCorp’s Fertilizer Plant No. 3. Lionel is presented as the real evil force in the show — this version of Lex Luthor is particularly interesting because of the writers’ interest in painstakingly demonstrating exactly how he develops into an evil genius. Lex goes to therapy, hates his manipulative father, and even lapses briefly into paranoid-schizophrenia at the beginning of the show’s third season. Lionel’s decision to privilege corporate greed over proper parenting practices, apparently, eventually makes Lex Luthor into Superman’s crazed arch-enemy.

6. “Mytharc” is a term commonly used by fan communities to refer to broader storylines in a sci-fi show like X-Files; the word is basically an abbreviation of “overarching mythology,” but television producers also refer to a multi-episode storyline as an “arc.”

7. Smallville DVD audio commentary, “Pilot.”

8. And, of course, both Smallville and Spider-Man have been very financially successful. According to the Internet Movie Database (http://us.imdb.com), Spider-Man grossed about $403 million at the box office, which is substantial even by today’s blockbuster-oriented standards.

9. This idea is also worth examining (to a certain extent at least) through the lens of “great man” theory — there are several directors at work today who have made concentrated efforts at glorifying the “comic book nerd.” Just as Quentin Tarantino has done his best to make the video-store clerk/movie fan seem cooler to American audiences, Kevin Smith (Clerks, Mallrats, Chasing Amy) has put comic book collecting, writing, and drawing at the center of his films, and has even had famed comic book artist Stan Lee appear in one of his films. As a result of Smith’s efforts, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to say that the comic book nerd has come up a few notches in the minds of many Americans in the 12-34 demographic. This also ties in with the idea that fan culture has become less stigmatized due to the exponential spread of Internet use in conjunction with TV viewing. What can be considered “cool” is certainly elusive, but directors like Smith and Tarantino both come from a school of revenge-filmmaking — making films that allow them to make up for being considered “uncool” and “nerdy” in their youth. Further relating to the Tarantino-comic book connection is the fact that Tarantino has the title character in Kill Bill: Vol. 2 (2004) deliver an entire soliloquy about Clark Kent versus Superman, which ends with the line, “Clark Kent is Superman’s critique on the human race.”

10. In fact, the first time we ever see teenage Clark, he is sitting at his computer surfing the web. “Pilot,” Episode #1-1, October 16, 2001.

11. Smallville Soundtrack: The Talon Mix, CD cover. Released February 25, 2003.

12. The O.C. is Fox’s current breakout hit about teen drama in California; during the past year or so Fox began to use the same sort of sound cards at the end of episodes that The WB has been using since roughly the first season of Dawson’s Creek in 1998. The official Fox website for The O.C. (http://www.fox.com/oc/home.htm) includes a blog “written” by one of the main characters, but the tone and language of the blog cannot be described as a true extension of the show’s canon, since the write uses terms like “character” and refers to events in other episodes in a very contrived, unnatural way. After looking at various web offerings from other networks, I believe that Smallville has the most extensive, authentic-seeming virtual universe.

13. http://www.thewb.com/Shows/
WithFeedback/0,9310,111513,00.html

14. Henry Jenkins discusses the Star Wars fan filmmaking phenomenon in “Digital Cinema, Media Convergence, and Participatory Culture,” in Rethinking Media Change: The Aesthetics of Transition, eds. David Thorburn and Henry Jenkins, (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2003).

15. Smallville Torch,
http://www2.warnerbros.com/web/
smallville/torch/home.jsp
.
Smallville Ledger
,
http://www2.warnerbros.com/web/
smallville/ledger/index.jsp
.

16. Although it’s almost impossible to prove that the ever-changing moods on the various message boards have an impact on the show’s narrative, every once in a while a storyline appears to reflect the opinions of the more vocal posters. As an example, in response to the show’s decision to send a character to Paris (“Truth,” #3-18, April 21, 2004), achilles13 posted, “I guess the writers read the message boards too. They realize that Lana's character has come to a standstill and needs a break. Great way to give her a break from the love story and have her come back to the story with a bang. And it will be exactly when Clark's personal life has a drastic change. Rumor has it that 2 people are leaving and who better right now than Lana. I hope she doesn't change her mind.” Posted on Smallville Ledger (April 21, 2004)
http://boards.warnerbros.com/web/messages.
jsp?topic=51137244&board=Smallville+Ledger

17. Mailing lists were the most prevalent form of fan community (aside from newsgroups) about five years ago, in the heyday of The X-Files. Although they still exist to a certain extent, much fan communication happens with blogging or the use of LiveJournal, which is a blog network. Grassroots movements in fan communities are often quite powerful if deployed on the Internet — in the early days of The X-Files, the idea of a romance between the show’s two main characters was very unpopular. Due to a concerted effort by a small mailing list called the “X-Files Romantics,” an effort which involved roaming newsgroups in packs and getting into flame wars on an hourly basis for several years, the Romantics managed to sway the opinions of enough fans so that the majority of vocal fans of The X-Files were pushing in every available forum for the show to head in that direction. This effort may have taken roughly seven years, but it eventually worked. Viral marketing is the advertising industry’s term for word-of-mouth information spreading.

18. http://www.thewbstreetteam.com

19. Several of the fans I interviewed for this paper have such screen names: clarkkent19, for instance, who is actually female.

20. http://smallville.warnerbros.com/
flash_large/flash_large.html

21. http://www2.warnerbros.com/smallville
/torch/starr-ware/VROS/login/index.html
.
This is the screen you access when you click on the crow’s eye on the header of the Torch. The user ID is csullivan, and the password is wallofweird.

22. http://www2.warnerbros.com/
web/smallville/luthorcorp/home.jsp

To access the investor center briefings, the passwords are respectively smallville, plantno.3, and manager. To access the Intranet under the name Lex Luthor, the password used to be “Lillian,” but has since changed. This author can no longer access Lex’s email.

23. Originally “slash” referred to male/male erotic contact. The generally agreed-upon origin of slash is fanzine Star Trek publications of Kirk/Spock erotica. Slash today, however, is a much wider phenomenon which describes fanfiction written about “deviant” sexuality in any cultural production, and distributed to other fans, usually on the Internet. As Punk Maneuverability describes it, “Slash is about subversion. It’s about subtext. It’s deviant behavior that needs to be hidden for some reason. In these ways, Mulder and Scully [the two leads of X-Files, male and female] had a slashy relationship. They couldn’t get involved because the cause came first. Their loyalty was to the truth and to each other, and sex would only get in the way. I liked Mulder and Scully because of that tension between them. I like Clark and Lex for that same kind of tension, this time stemming from mistrust.” (Email to author, March 23, 2004). The subject of slash and its variety of definitions is much larger than the scope of this paper, but suffice it to say that the constantly evolving nature of fanfiction genres is certainly worth continuing study.

24. Commentary for “Pilot.” Smallville. October 16, 2001.

25. Smallville Virtual Season.
http://www.smallvillevirtuality.com/vs/vs.html


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