Sean Guynes is a PhD candidate at Michigan State University’s Department of English and Dan Hassler-Forest is an assistant professor at Utrecht University. These two are not only scholars of popular culture and mass entertainment, they have recently teamed up to tackle one of the biggest pop culture franchises of all time, Star Wars. In their manuscript, Star Wars and the History of Transmedia Storytelling, Guynes and Hassler-Forest have curated an amazing collection of articles that explore the various ways Star Wars has expanded into multiple forms of media. Wanting to learn more about this manuscript, I was able to interview Guynes and Hassler-Forest for ScifiPulse.
Nicholas Yanes: You are both academics who study popular culture (as well as other topics), when did you two know you wanted to have careers centered on the scholarly exploration of mass entertainment?
Sean Guynes: The summer between my junior and senior years of college I saw John Carter at the dollar theatre with my mom, since it seemed the only good option at the time. I was then a serious linguistic anthropology major looking forward to doing a PhD in that field and working on language preservation with indigenous communities (I’d already done some work with an advisor on the Quileute language). But seeing John Carter and learning that it was based on a (serialized) novel from 1912—I was blown away. I hadn’t watched or been particularly interested in science fiction since Revenge of the Sith came out, which sort of killed my childhood love of Star Wars and other franchises like that (I had a particular love of Harry Potter, as well). So I dove headlong into reading science fiction, saw how the cultural theory I was learning in my anthropology courses could help understand science fiction and popular culture better, and now, six years later, I find myself in an English PhD program devoting my days to reading/watching, critiquing, and teaching about all things science fiction, fantasy, and horror.
Dan Hassler-Forest: I pursued MA degrees in English literature and Media Studies purely out of personal interest, and with very little idea of where that would take me professionally. Certainly the idea that I would end up teaching this stuff in an academic environment never occurred to me! But after drifting off into an accidental professional career in advertising, editing, film journalism, I increasingly felt that the seemingly pointless knowledge I’d amassed about film, television, and popular literature could actually be put to some use in higher education. Then, once I got my foot in the door at a media studies department, I found that my teaching worked best when I worked with case studies and examples I was most familiar with, nearly all of which came from popular culture. Then, following on from that experience, my research interests simply reproduced that dynamic, focusing mostly on how to make cultural and critical theory intersect with pop-cultural texts and the industries that produce them.
Yanes: Sean, you are currently at Michigan State University, and Dan, you are currently at Utrecht University in the Netherlands. Could you two share your thoughts on the state of popular culture studies in your respective regions?
Guynes: I’m not sure that the state of popular culture studies is necessarily regional, at least not in the US, where the issue of whether popular culture studies is an accepted field of inquiry for aspiring (or even accomplished) academics seems to have more to do with individual departments than it does any sense of regional academic identity. That said, in terms of the history and legacy of popular culture studies, the upper midwest is a somewhat significant locale, since the Popular Culture Association was formed by a group of scholars who split with the supposed elitism of the American Studies Association. One of the principal founders, Ray Browne, taught at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, where he set up several degrees in the subject and established a major archive for the field; another, Russel Nye, taught at Michigan State University, and also set up an important archive that includes a major science fiction collection, one of the largest public comics collections, and, after an acquisition last year, the largest media collection in the US. In general—and to be absolutely practical about this—I think departments all over the country are increasingly open to popular culture studies not because of its intrinsic importance to the study of history and society, but because it puts student butts in seats. I think most academics in English and American Studies, fields that I identify with, would claim that the study of popular culture is important and necessary, but it’s also clear that old lines between high art and popular culture, between Literature and popular fiction, still remain.
Hassler-Forest: For me, in Europe, the status of popular culture as a field of academic research is still very ambiguous. On the one hand, there is the British Cultural Studies tradition, which approached the field in terms of how popular culture was read, appropriated, and resisted by audience formations — most broadly, in terms of political power, and more specifically, along lines of gender, sexual identity, race, and social class. While the Cultural Studies tradition was a quite basic framework in the 1990s and early 2000s, it has now moved somewhat to the background, overshadowed in many ways by production studies, platform studies, fan studies, etc. In general, media studies departments are under increasing pressure to offer more explicit connections to the job market, and therefore the critical and theoretical backbone of the Cultural Studies tradition seems to be on the decline in many of those departments. It is also still very much the case that within European media studies scholarship, interest in general tends to towards more prestigious, more elitist forms of culture, rather than what I would perceive as truly popular culture.
Yanes: Growing up, how did you two first encounter Star Wars? Additionally, were you more familiar with this franchise due to the movies, the books, or some other form of media?
Guynes: I first saw the special edition of The Empire Strikes Back at a theatre on Southeastern Louisiana University’s campus when I was six. My mom was a grad student in English there at the time. I don’t remember the film itself, but I do remember the cultural hype around it, seeing toys at fast food restaurants, and the launch of a new line of toys. I even remember seeing toys tailored to Timothy Zahn’s novels. I then fell in love with The Phantom Menace when it came out; I watched in relentlessly, memorized the choreography to the final lightsaber duel (I was Darth Maul), and played the pod-racing game for hours. With three years between each of the films, I kept my love of Star Wars alive by reading just about every novel I could—which, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, was quite a lot! My chapter in our book, on the New Jedi Order novel series, is a direct outgrowth of my childhood love for those novels, though I’ve since learned to use a critical eye to the franchise.
Hassler-Forest: As an act of deeply irresponsible parenting for which I remain eternally grateful, my dad took me to see The Empire Strikes Back when it first came out in 1980. I was six years old, and it made an enormous (one might say: formative) impression on me. I doubt it would have lingered in my youth for as long as it did if it hadn’t been for the toys, comic books, picture books, and other merchandising that helped the franchise take up permanent residence in my imagination. Another thing about it that mattered to me was that it wasn’t as widely known or embraced in the Netherlands, where I grew up, as it was in the United States, the country I was born and which I always continued to embrace as my cultural home, so to speak. So I could explain what it was to other kids, get them “into” Star Wars by showing them my books and toys — and it also helped that my dad was also into it, and fostered my fandom pretty much uncritically. Later, as a teenager and as a college student, organizing regular trilogy marathons on video as special events with a bunch of friends became a way to maintain friendships and cultural preferences that we very much defined as cult properties that were very much subcultural. So even though by that time I didn’t care much for any of the movies apart from Empire, the ritual of watching them together remained a meaningful social activity for me.
Yanes: You two recently co-edited and published the book, Star Wars and the History of Transmedia Storytelling. What was the inspiration to create this manuscript?
Guynes: For me, it was the recognition that there’s a lot written about Star Wars, but not much of it is good. Much of it seemed to be really fannish or in line with Campbellian myth criticism (blech!), and I really wanted to bring together a group of scholars who would break the franchise and its history open, to chart the connections between its development of franchising and storytelling strategies in common with the history of transmedia. In some ways, it was also an excuse for me to write about Star Wars novels. The timing also happened to coincide with the franchise’s 40th anniversary. I proposed it to Dan, and thankfully he said yes! If only I could convince him to do a similar volume on Star Trek…
Hassler-Forest: The book was totally Sean’s idea! I had promised myself not to do another book that year, but Sean was so smart, so well-informed, and so charming that I found myself unable to say no. And working with him was an absolute delight from start to finish.
Yanes: While going over all the contributions to this project, did you learn anything about Star Wars that took you by surprise?
Guynes: Going in to this book project, I was of the naïve opinion that we would cover it all. So I was humbled to discover the depth of my naïveté as well as just how much Star Wars there is—how many texts, fan practices, franchising strategies, etc., each with their own angles and complex stories interweaving with various social, political, economic, and media histories! It is simply breathtaking and daunting. And there are other media franchises that are on par with or surpass Star Wars in their breadth and complexity. Star Trek and Doctor Who are strong contenders for transmedia franchises with the largest corpus of storytelling amassed in world history. Really, these franchises have taken on ecologies of their own and have become as complex as, for example, the whole of Greek or Roman myth, as we’ve received it from the manuscripts and archaeological evidence that have survived. It’s astounding.
Hassler-Forest: I realized very soon that I knew a lot less about Star Wars than I thought I did. I know the movies reasonably well, and I’ve played the occasional video game. But I never involved myself much with the Expanded Universe or spent a lot of time reading the comics or anything like that. So I learned so much from the process, not just from the articles that all our authors contributed, but even from the overwhelming number of abstracts we received when we put out the call for papers.
Yanes: The fan culture of Star Wars has been in the news lately. Why do you think Star Wars has inspired such a devoted following? Also, do you have a favorite Star Wars fanfilm?
Guynes: Ha, now that’s a question! In fact, it’s one of the key questions that this book—and many others about Star Wars—try to grapple with, and I’m not sure any of us will ever have a completely satisfactory answer. But to hazard a thesis, I think it has much to do with, on the one hand, the timeliness of the original films hitting the rather stagnant late-1970s genre film market when it did and, in terms of special effects, really hitting other movies out of the water. That timeliness also has much to do, I think, with the young, rather unknown actors and somewhat exciting visual worldbuilding (Chewbacca, stormtroopers, various droids, dozens of aliens). Lucas and his team also marketed well, pairing with a young toy company, Kenner, that in the end delivered exceptional toys, and with Marvel Comics (where the Star Wars series became an ongoing series after the six-issue film adaptation, and got some of Marvel’s best writers/artists). No doubt the simplicity of the story, its hilariously simplistic good/evil binary, made it an easy story for children and teens to get into at a time when the line between good and evil in American social life was anything but clear. Star Wars produced, in the end, a blank canvas for fans and later writers (with novels and comics) to elaborate. Perhaps that, more than anything, made Star Wars a phenomenon in the 1970s-1980s, but there’s much much more to the story of Star Wars’s success at capturing us (and our wallets)—and our book tries to give readers a glimpse of some of the many angles into this question.
I won’t comment much on current Star Wars fan culture except to say that I have truly never felt the Star Wars fan community to be inviting or willing to engaging interesting conversation beyond “Which is better: Luke or Vader?” or “Which would win in a race: Millennium Falcon or U.S.S. Enterprise?” This is a bit of an overgeneralization, of course, but in some ways my interest in putting this book together arose out of my desire to encourage discourse on the franchise that was not so simple minded as I had experience in fan communities. To be more reflective about the history of the franchise and its storytelling (e.g. the binary of light vs. dark side is ridiculous and a politic-ethical problem that, thankfully, many of the franchise novels, comics, and games complicate and move away from).
As far as a favorite fanfilm? Don’t think I have one! Though I will admit to loving the mid-eighties made-for-TV Ewok movies.
Hassler-Forest: What I would add to Sean’s excellent answer is the interesting dynamic between merchandising, of which there was so much, versus the actual films, which were always defined in terms of scarcity. So even though a lot of narrative material was produced for other media, that clearly never had the status of the original trilogy. And later on, the awful prequel trilogy took a similar approach: there were a few TV spin-off animation series, but again: just a few films, several years apart, and presented and experienced as exceptional media events, surrounded by the longer-term presence of toys, games, lunch boxes, etc. So I think a lot of the fan culture derives from that relationship between relatively scarce (and therefore “holy”) films, versus a culture industry that keeps producing so much stuff to keep the storyworld alive in the popular consciousness. Some of the difficulty that Disney is currently running into, both with new directions for the saga and with the “movie-a-year” approach to Star Wars film production, relates back in pretty obvious ways to that older dynamic, and how Disney is trying to rewire it.
As someone who grew up outside of the US, Star Wars was mostly a kind of subcultural type of fandom, so my general sense of what kind of people were into Star Wars and what they were responding to was very strongly blinkered by that very specific context. In the very period in which we were putting together the book, it became increasingly obvious that there is a lot of unsettling gatekeeping going on by groups of fans who feel they have some form of ownership over the franchise, and who have various reasons to dislike the franchise’s new direction, for a variety of reasons. Some of this is clearly a subculture of white straight male fans, who object to the increased focus on women and minorities in a world that was almost exclusively “theirs.” And then there are other kinds of fans, who dislike something like The Last Jedi for entirely different reasons, but who then feel less inclined to voice their criticism because they don’t want to be associated with discourses of toxic geek masculinity, which have in many ways hijacked that conversation.
As for a favorite fanfilm, I kind of liked “Star Wars Uncut: the project that remade the original Star Wars in tiny individual bits, where anyone could remake a 15-second sequence in whatever style or form they preferred.
Yanes: History has shown that Star Wars is one of the few entertainment franchises that works well in every form of media. Why do you think that is?
Guynes: A simple original story, perhaps. The original three films give you hints that a world, a whole universe, exists beyond the basic storyline, but it doesn’t create a complicated world that legislates significant limits on what other storytellers working in the Star Wars sandbox can do. I’m not sure that there’s anything intrinsic to Star Wars that makes it work in every form of media. It might be that, at this point, and given the rather smart franchising strategies Star Wars pursued, its success is more of a self-fulfilling prophecy. That is, so long as new Star Wars games or films or comics or novels continue to make a bit of a profit—they’ll get made. Same with any well-established media franchise with a major following that, partially out of nostalgia, partially out of sincere fandom/interest, will buy a ticket. What makes Star Wars unique is its history of transmedia franchising strategies (and success and failures), rather than Star Wars itself.
Hassler-Forest: I’m not sure it does actually work well in every form of media. Does it? I know that Star Wars stuff has been produced in just about every conceivable medium, and that the popularity of the brand has created a kind of built-in audience that will generally be inclined to purchase those products. And certainly, there have been some well-made products that have appeared across a wide variety of media, from a video game like Knights of the Old Republic to the original tabletop role-playing game. But a lot of it is also junk that is made simply because it provides another easy way to capitalize on a hugely recognizable brand. (For that matter, I think the majority of the Star Wars movies are also junk, so I’m not really approaching the question as a fan…)
Yanes: What aspects of Star Wars do you think still need to be further explored by scholars?
Guynes: I’ll make this short, because it seems the most pressing to me: Star Wars storytelling outside of the films and TV shows. There are hundreds of novels, thousands of comics, dozens of games—many of which are better than half of the films, more interesting in their politics, and show a better representation of the diversity of the world we live in. When I was a kid and adults learned I liked Star Wars, they used to talk to me about the films. But I always told them, perhaps a bit too self-interestedly, “Star Wars isn’t the movies, it’s everything else!” What’re folks waiting for?
And, since I’m touting the novels and comics, I want to make myself clear to any people in the pro-Legends camp who think that the Expanded Universe is some sort of holy text that they can use as justification for berating women online: I’m not with you and, if you read the EU texts carefully or with anything like a critical eye, you would find your own idiocy appalling, too.
Hassler-Forest: I would answer that question by emphasizing everything but the narrative contents of the Star Wars universe. The most frightening, as well as the most interesting and relevant, aspect of the franchise is its ubiquitous but also rather uncertain position as an entertainment brand in a rapidly but unevenly globalizing world. So I’m most interested in the position of Star Wars as a brand, as IP, as a media license.
Yanes: When people finish reading Star Wars and the History of Transmedia Storytelling, what do you hope that they take away from it?
Guynes: That there’s a huge story to tell about how media franchises and transmedia storytelling co-developed. I hope people will want to ask (and seek answers for) even more questions. I hope people take away a sincere desire to pursue this line of critical inquiry, to ask about the place of other franchises in media history. In short, I want people to ask how we got where we are now.
Hassler-Forest: I hope it demonstrates to readers how a storyworld and franchise that tends to appear so homogeneous and monolithic was, in practice, something that has always been defined by happenstance, by experimentation, and by unpredictable, historically contingent, and often downright weird media-industrial practices. The excellent book The Secret History of Star Wars has previously laid out how the mythological superstructure was never a given, and has constantly been invented more or less in hindsight — making Star Wars more a product of retroactive continuity than about forward planning of a consistent narrative or theme. Our book’s essays connect that unpredictability and experimentation to specific ways in which the franchise crossed over to other media platforms, with varying degrees of success.
Yanes: Finally, what are you two working on that others can look forward to?
Guynes: Well, to begin with, a dissertation. It’s on science fiction novels in the early Cold War period, c. 1945-1959, and tells the history of science fiction’s anxieties and fears about the state of American empire, global power, and shifting social relations. Other than that, my good friend Martin Lund and I are editing a collection of essays called Unstable Masks: Whiteness and American Superhero Comics, which is contracted with The Ohio State University Press for release sometime next year. There are two other edited collections I’m working on, but they’re in early stages so I can’t say anything about them. And I’m also completing a book of essays on the representation of Israel in comics by American, European, and Israeli Jews, which I expect to finish next summer. If you’re looking to keep up with the state of contemporary science fiction, fantasy, and horror, you can also check out my regular fiction reviews in World Literature Today, the book reviews section of Foundation (which I co-edit), and The SFRA Review (which I edit).
Hassler-Forest: After I finished my previous monograph Science Fiction, Fantasy and Politics: Transmedia World-building Beyond Capitalism, I decided to wait a bit before committing to another major writing project. So for the past year or two, I’ve focused on teaching, public speaking, and limiting my writing to journal articles, book chapters, and occasional articles and reviews for publications like Los Angeles Review of Books, MediaCommons, and The Washington Post. I have reached the point where I feel more or less ready to start another book, but I must say that it feels like a huge challenge to come up with something that feels sufficiently relevant and necessary as the world around us is changing to quickly. Quite frankly, the rising tide of global fascism is so terrifying, so unsettling to me that it’s often hard to overcome the feeling that we’re mostly busy rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. To relate it back in some way to Star Wars: I guess it’s just not entirely clear to me what the best way is for me to fight the Empire (or the First Order).
Remember, you can learn more about Guynes and Hassler-Forest by following them on Twitter at @guynesvishniac and @DanHF. And you can get your own copy of Star Wars and the History of Transmedia Storytelling here.