Written by Skylar Epstein
The year is 2012 and Joss Whedon’s Avengers just came out. You, as an avid comic reader, go into the theater wielding comparisons to the comics, ready and willing to fill in the backstory of each character for your less informed friends. Then it’s 2013, and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, a spin-off series about your favourite character Phil Coulson and his fellow S.H.I.E.L.D agents, is produced by ABC. You sit at the ready once a week to check your knowledge of the comics against this new continuation of the MCU. Three years later, season four comes out and Robbie Reyes, (who first appeared as the Ghost Rider in All New Ghost Rider in 2014) makes an appearance as a major character in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. You meet him again and love him, so of course you run to Bookpeople and buy all available issues of All New Ghost Rider. You tape the ticket stubs of Avengers Endgame to the corkboard in your dorm, put away the Ghost Rider comics, and press play on the new episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
Simply by being a fanatic of the MCU, you have participated in transmedia storytelling for close to seven years.
If the term “transmedia storytelling” sounds futuristic, niche, or something way too complicated for casual reading, let me put those thoughts to rest. You’ve probably seen and participated in transmedia storytelling before without knowing exactly what you were interacting with. The strategy of transmedia storytelling is pretty straightforward, in fact. It is simply the process of using more than one platform to tell a single narrative story. In the case of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it’s the use of transmedia storytelling that actually extends the universe out from just the movies. Marvel movies can, of course, be enjoyed as stand-alones, but if you read the comics and watch the spin off series, you’ll probably be more immersed than a movie isolationist fan just by having more knowledge about the canon. The conglomerate monster of the Marvel universe aside, what transmedia storytelling boils down to is a strategy of extending your story beyond its original format. The key aspect of transmedia storytelling is that each platform, or different extension of the story, “adds a new piece of information which forces us to revise our understanding of the fiction as a whole,” writes Henry Jenkins. The concept itself is simple, but transmedia storytelling in practice is a lot harder to pull off than the definition implies.
This probably isn’t the first time you have encountered transmedia storytelling. Our culture is made for the transmedia mode of storytelling, and it’s been going on for a long time without many of us having a name for it. At first glance, listen, or read, you might not be aware that a certain narrative is using transmedia storytelling. The history of transmedia storytelling is vast and varied, but some notable examples have emerged within the last ten years. Take Marisha Pessl’s novel, Night Film (2013). Night Film, a story about a shadowy murder mystery, has been critically praised for how the “maniacally clever” fiction is uncannily realistic—to the point where the fiction of the novel is almost indistinguishable from the real world. Pessl accomplishes this by composing materials that “evidence” her characters’ existences in our world, like Vulture articles, recorded therapy sessions, posters of movies directed by the elusive (but fictional) Stanislav Cordova, audio from the Oscar awards, and even a personal diary that are meant to be considered alongside the novel’s text. The undeniably immersive multimedia experience of Night Film challenges its readers to define it. Is this a novel? A podcast? Or is it something entirely different? Much like the plot of the novel, the answer to this question remains a mystery.
Moving forward to 2018, another prime example of transmedia storytelling arose when Janelle Monae released her third album, titled Dirty Computer. This album shares a narrative with a short film of the same name, which Monae directed and starred in. The songs of the album and their accompanying music videos elaborate on the story told in the short film, culminating in an out-of-this-world multimedia narrative experience that explores classic science fiction tropes like individualism under systematic oppression, futurism, and of course, “dirty” computers as nonconformist androids. For the exceptionally geeky reader, the relationship between the Doctor Who (2005 – Present) and Torchwood (2006 – 2011) series may be another good example of multimedia stories, because Torchwood, although it is a successful and popular series in its own right, originated as a spin-off series and expands the Doctor Who universe with every episode.
When transmedia storytelling is done well, it provides an intensely immersive experience that can transform a reader from just an observer to an active participant in the world of the narrative.
When you set off to create a transmedia story, you have to commit to the juggling act of logically coordinating different platforms into your fiction. Aside from creating your characters, world, and plot, you have the labor of love that is creating additional content to send out over multiple platforms. Of course, you have to make sure the extra content is consistent with your original story and that the platforms are engaging—all while ensuring that the original story is accessible to single platform readers. Transmedia storytelling can be very daunting for independent creators who don’t have a large corporation handling their social media.
For all of us armchair literary critics trying to do the math here, the question is this: if a story can be told in its entirety without the use of multiple platforms, why go through the effort of transmedia storytelling? The calculus of effort and reward that goes into deciding how to tell a story is different for every author—far be it from us to make generalizations about the minds of creative geniuses. As a reader, however, I can understand why the strategy of transmedia storytelling has proven to be so successful. When transmedia storytelling is done well, it provides an intensely immersive experience that can transform a reader from just an observer to an active participant in the world of the narrative. In the past, transmedia storytelling happened primarily through adaptations for television and spin-off books. Now, transmedia storytelling has gone digital. With how many avenues for media consumption are available to us today, it’s easier than ever for a story to expand beyond the page. There are many ways you can tell a transmedia story, but let’s zoom in on a method that is near and dear to every college student’s hearts: social media.
Let’s go back to 2013. This time, we’ll need to shift our focus away from the Marvel Universe and onto Tumblr. In the fall of 2013, Ngozi Ukazu, who was a recent Yale graduate at the time, launched Check Please! on Tumblr as a free-to-read episodic webcomic. Ukazu describes Check, Please! as “a story about hockey and friendship and bros and trying to find yourself during the best 4 years of your life.” If you’ll excuse a baseball metaphor about a hockey webcomic, Check, Please! hit a home run. People resonated with it right from its inception. The depth and relatability of the themes introduced, the antics of the characters, and the adorable art just made Check, Please! easy to love. This remarkable fan response was reflected in the comic’s revolutionary kickstarter success, as Ukazu was able to raise $74,000 in total to produce a printed version of the first book only two years after she first published it on Tumblr. In addition to telling a great story – lauded especially for its LGBTQI+ representation – Ukazu was very successful in presenting said story. As a genius navigator of the webcomic medium, much of her wild success rested on her early commitment to multiplatform storytelling.
Ukazu’s platform of choice is Twitter. In 2014 she created an account completely from the point of view of Eric Bittle, the main character of Check, Please!. From the location tag of Samwell, Massachusetts to the bio, the only indication that the person behind the profile didn’t actually exist was the fact that all of the photos posted were illustrated images. Logistically, running this Twitter involved making it private and public so that the tweets would coordinate with the comic’s update schedule. Tweet too soon, and she’d spoil her plot. Tweet too late after the relevant comic is released, and her readers would have forgotten the context of the tweet. Through coordinating the comic episode updates and the tweeting schedule, the account remained consistent with the comic and did not disrupt Ukazu’s narrative pace. And, luckily for new fans, those older tweets remain preserved through the magic of the internet.
The characters in Check, Please! don’t just vanish when they’re not “on screen” – they interact with each other and experience plotlines beyond the illustrations.
Like a puck being jettisoned into the rink after the first face-off, this Twitter jumps straight out of the pages of Ukazu’s comic. Even the @omgcheckplease handle is integrated into the fiction of the Check, Please! narrative, since Bittle uses the same handle for his fictional YouTube vlogging account in the webcomic. At times, the tweets filled in moments that weren’t illustrated in the comic. Here, is a prime example. A moment thus referenced briefly in the comic:
Was elaborated on in a month-long twitter thread that included tweets like these:
Other times, the Twitter account can show alternate perspectives for moments that were illustrated in the comic. For instance, during a scene where the comic illustrations focused on an emotional conflict between two characters, Eric, who wasn’t present during that scene, tweets away about keg stands and party shenanigans. While this particular example shows how this can be a humorous device, it is especially useful for worldbuilding and character development. The tweets grant a sense of permanence to the events occurring in the comics and allow readers to feel a very real sense of time passing outside of the comic. The characters in Check, Please! don’t just vanish when they’re not “on screen” – they interact with each other and experience plotlines beyond the illustrations. In this way, the dual perspectives of the comic and the Twitter account tell a more complete story that builds a world that feels more real than the comic could ever tell in isolation.
The secret to Ukazu’s success is both the total immersion in and conviction of her imagined world and the inclusion of the reader as both an observer and participant in the story. In addition to letting the readers into her story through the interactive Twitter account, she also invites them into her storytelling process. Ukazu brings in a refreshing transparency to transmedia storytelling, and she actually walks her readers through her praxis herself during a Q&A. To a fan’s query about the importance of following the tweets, she posts:
“Hey, dude, I’m doing multi-platform storytelling! You can read the entire comic without looking at the Twitter. You can also read the whole comic without looking at an Ask-a-Wellie or a blog post too. But–Okay. Maybe I should officially revise my stance: if you want that full Check, Please! experience, you totally should read the Twitter! You’ll get a clearer picture of the whole narrative I’m trying to tell and hey, you might just have some fun. But, yo, I’m not the boss. I’m merely a comic artist offering a multi-tiered user experience.”
Here, she throws back the curtain and reveals her playbook. The content she mentions (like the Ask-a-Wellie mini strips, which explain the rules and slang of hockey) both explains the narrative and expands on it. It’s all very meta, as her fourth-wall breaking goalie, Johnson, would say.
The key phrase here is “a multi-tiered user experience.” Through Twitter, Ukazu invites the reader to both experience and participate in the narrative. Bittle’s twitter is pretty realistic. He tweets about things that college students normally tweet about (thinking about your classes, Beyonce’s best album and why it’s Lemonade, dunking on your friends, etc).
He uses hashtags, posts funny candids of his friends, and changes his profile pictures just like we do in real life. If you didn’t read the comic, the account could act as its own separate piece of fiction because of how comprehensive the personality presence is. Bittle even interacts with fans, responding to their questions and comments about his fictional school without missing a beat. Usually, this would interrupt suspension of belief because people generally don’t converse with strangers on Twitter on the daily, but these types of interactions make sense in the context of the Check, Please! comic because Bittle is a YouTuber who commonly interacts with internet fans he does not know personally.
The interactivity of the fictional Twitter profile softens the degrees of separation that usually exist between readers, characters, and authors. As soon as you click ‘follow’ you become part of the narrative, since the fictional audience in Check, Please! and your personal twitter account become one and the same. Now, when Bittle addresses his fans and followers in the Check, Please! comic, he’s talking about you instead of some abstract nonexistent audience. Moments where he confides in his fans (like when he sobs in a vlog about falling for the wrong guy) are more intimate for the readers, as they can express sympathy or joy to Bittle without having to break the fiction by going to the webcomic site to leave a comment. This helps Ukazu too – the participatory relationship Twitter grants the readers is also a useful tool for authors to gauge the audience’s emotional response to their stories.
The trajectory of transmedia storytelling is exhilarating, because it shows how creators are adapting their storytelling methods to a digital world.
Check, Please! is by no means the only example of transmedia storytelling, but it has stood out as incredibly innovative and engaging. Check, Please! was one of the first webcomics to show how transmedia storytelling can be used by all creators (no matter their budget) to make more engaging stories. Considering how quickly we are changing the ways we interact with media and each other over the internet I suspect we might see a lot more of transmedia storytelling over the next few years. The ways in which we consume media is becoming more and more fractured. We bounce between different streaming services and different mediums with ease. With all of the options available to us now, it’s pretty uncommon to find all of the creative content we enjoy on a single website or platform. It’s easier than ever for creators to utilize transmedia storytelling.
Although the Marvel Cinematic Universe was certainly a notorious feat of transmedia storytelling, you don’t have to be a media conglomerate or a billion dollar studio to incorporate transmedia storytelling in your own creative practices. It’s easier than ever for individuals to publish content online. Twitter, Tumblr and Instagram are all free—and as Check Please! proved, are nearly untapped wells of creative potential. It’s even free to host a podcast on iTunes if you choose to go the route of Pessl’s Night Film. Even including hyperlinks has potential for immersive storytelling, because you can send your reader on a digital journey. If Tolkein had access to Twitter, who’s to say that The Hobbit wouldn’t have been chronicled through Bilbo’s live-tweets. Since the content on social media platforms is so shareable, using digital platforms for transmedia storytelling has a lot of benefits for small creators aiming to expand their audience. Transmedia storytelling is here to stay, and so are the innovations it brings to storytelling practices. The trajectory of transmedia storytelling is exhilarating, because it shows how creators are adapting their storytelling methods to a digital world. In my opinion, this is something for both creators and consumers to be excited about.