Plurimediality and the Serial Figure

Curator's Note

The serial figure, as we call it, is not merely a character in a series; rather, it exists as a series – across a variety of media, shaped by a dynamic interplay between repetition and variation. Serial figures such as Batman, Sherlock Holmes, Fu Manchu, Frankenstein’s monster, Dracula, or Tarzan proliferate in literary works, films, comics, television series, and video games, and (in stark contrast to the characters of ongoing, monomedial series) they constitute discontinuous, plurimedial serialities without regard for diegetic consistency. Serial figures are ‘flat’ in most of their instantiations, and they show a remarkable self-reflexive awareness of the material parameters of their own serial restagings – and the media-technical changes informing these restagings.

A great number of serial figures are Janus-faced beings who oscillate between secret and public identities, or between the human and the animal or technical, and this narrative duplicity maps nicely onto the duality of inward and outward-looking perspectives towards diegetic contents and medial forms. Movement between media implies constant revision, a lack of true origins (or an overabundance of the same), so that productions in a new medium constantly circle around origin stories, rewriting them and thereby positioning the new medium as the figure’s native turf.

It is fitting, then, that Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) stages the central battle between the title figure and his nemesis Joker as a battle over media and (serial) memory. In this clip, Joker hijacks broadcast TV to issue his challenge, which Bruce Wayne reviews at his elaborate multimedia console (combining televisual reception with production, surveillance, recording, and computing capabilities), before turning to a newspaper clipping recording the past. The very circumstances of this ‘face-off’ thus belie Joker’s claim that this is "just [between] the two of us." The ensuing flashback gives us the figures’ ‘backstories,’ but it does not disrupt the highly mediated format of the encounter, relating the past events in markedly cinematic terms and in a highly artificial noirish style from an impossible vantage point (certainly not the child’s perspective). "I have taken off my makeup – let’s see if you can take off yours," quips Joker near the beginning.

This is the one thing, however, that serial figures cannot do. In the end, Wayne dons his Batman suit to go to battle. Framed by a multitude of media, the scene gestures towards the fragmented, plurimedial existence of every serial figure.

Comments

Daniel Stein's picture

Putting More Make-Up On

Thanks for this fabulous and inspiring post. I think that the Joker’s taunt "I have taken off my makeup - let’s see if you can take off yours" is instructive because it misrecognizes the actual logic of serial figures, which tend to appear in ever different guises and makeups as they move from one medium to another and then another (think of the dancing Batman and the many Jokers in Prince’s Batdance video). Thus, for Batman to take off his makeup would mean to reveal one Bruce Wayne, whereas putting on the Batman mask and costume has produced endless versions of this serial figure (and is therefore an essential element of the genre). In light of all this, it is, however, quite ironic that in a plurimedial series such as Batman, even demasking won’t settle identities. After all, the removal of Batman’s mask on the big screen has reaveled a series of actors (Michael Keaton, George Clooney, Val Kilmer, Christian Bale), all of whom recall in one way or another earlier incarnations of the figure, for instance the campy Adam West of the 1966 television series.

Shane Denson's picture

even demasking won't settle identities

 Thanks, Daniel, for your insightful comments. I agree completely with what you write about the misrecognition of the logic of serial figures: it’s precisely the proliferation of endless versions of a figure like Batman that keeps him in circulation. Batman, Inc., for example, seems to recognize this fact and to make use of it, thus self-reflexively enfolding this logic of plurimedial proliferation into the diegetic world. Burton’s film is no less self-reflexive, of course, but this raises the question of how we should understand Joker’s taunt, which again seems to misrecognize the logic driving Batman. To read his challenge self-reflexively, though, we could say that he has indeed recognized the logic of proliferation: he demands the impossible (the settling of identities), because that’s the only way you could ever put an end to a figure like Batman (simply killing him won’t do it, as countless superhero deaths and the subsequent retcon will demonstrate). As you say, though, even demasking won’t settle identities—just look at Joker here without his makeup on. One of the film’s great ironies, then, is the fact that Batman reveals his "true identity" to Vicki Vale—this, to me, would seem to be the film’s true misrecognition of the logic of serial figiures, and it explains why Vicki could not be part of the sequel…

Daniel Stein's picture

Continuity Violations

Your point about the Joker’s self-reflexive understanding of the logic of proliferation makes sense. And you’re also right about Vicky Vale’s knowledge of Batman’s civilian identity, which was one of Burton’s "violations" of the comic book continuity that raised the most extensive fan protest (apart from casting Keaton as Bruce Wayne). It foregrounds the conflicting demands that different media place on plurimedial figures (a Hollywood blockbuster pretty much needs a fermale love interest; a superhero comic book doesn’t necessarily). 

Shane Denson's picture

Continuity & Discontinuity

Indeed, continuity is centrally at stake here, and some form of continuity is always at stake in serialized narratives and media productions: continuity & discontinuity can be seen as alternate terms for, or alternate facets of, the interchanges between repetition & variation that drive serialities. The plurimedial serial figure (as opposed to the monomedial series character, e.g. a character in a soap) thrives precisely on discontinuity, though: the seriality of the serial figure is composed of a snowballing of media materialities that accrues as a result of constantly switching course, changing media, and disregarding previous (diegetic) developments. As a result, "continuity"—both as the term is used in comics and in film—is consistently problematized by the serial figure. And Batman is a particularly interesting case, in this regard—an particularly prone to controversy—because he constantly alternates between existences as a serial figure (across many media) and as a series character (within a canonical set of comics).

Ruth Mayer's picture

an end to continuity

Wow, this has taken off without me. Wait! Two observations on a discussion which makes lots of relevant points: 1. The uncovering of Batman’s identity in this movie may have more substantial consequences than the two of you acknowledge – this might really be the beginning of the end of the serial figure. It signals to the filmic (re)birth of Batman as a series character. In Batman Begins or The Dark  Knight Batman acquires the kind of depth that a neo-noirish blockbuster demands, his psychological quandaries are foregrounded to an extent that the ‚figure’ in its recognizable flatness does - at least - no longer take center stage.

2. Thanks, Daniel, for bringing up the issue of iconicity in your first response. I think it is indeed important to reflect on how precisely a certain ‘look’ (or ‘sound,’ in Tarzan’s case) is constituted and how these iconic features then come to be actualized in the course of the figure’s career. I find it intriguing that even in instances where a certain actor can be identified as responsible for a figure’s iconicity (Lugosi for Dracula, Karloff for Frankenstein’s Monster), at a closer investigation the iconic features of the figures can be seen to ‘accrue’ (as Shane put it) gradually, although the instantiation of the figure is only successful if this accrual remains unnoticed. Every successful enactment needs to be seen as the most truthful rendition of the figure’s essence. Irony and the serial figure don’t go well together.

  

Shane Denson's picture

or just a break in continuity?

 Just wanted to follow up briefly on the first point you raise here, Ruth: I agree that this is the beginning of a particular serial continuity on film—i.e. the beginning of Batman’s transformation from a serial figure to a series character. But in fact Batman (and many other serial figures as well) alternate between these forms of existence quite often. This is what I was getting at with my comments about the interchanges between continuity and discontinuity above. But I wouldn’t go so far as to claim that this is the beginning of the end of the serial figure. The branchings, remediations, reboots, etc. continue, and I would be more than surprised if this stopped anytime soon.

Jason Mittell's picture

Codes of comprehension

Very interesting post & conversation! This is somewhat anticipating my post for tomorrow,** but I am particular interested in how viewers/readers draw upon our accumulated knowledge about a character to infer interiority & backstories in a series. But in such interserial systems, what guidance are we given as to which previous iterations "matter" and which are of another narrative frame? When we watch Nolan’s Batman films, how do we draw upon and/or revise our knowledge from previous films & comics? Are there cues in the texts, or established conventions of consumption to guide us? And how might differently knowledgeable consumers decode differently?

** Tune in tomorrow for more on seriality & character interiority - same Bat time, same Bat channel…

Ruth Mayer's picture

codes of comprehension

Excellent questions, Jason!! Could you please provide the answers tomorrow? I could not possibly come up with an overarching answer to this, I guess it depends very much on the individual text/context/mediality. One device that I came across very frequently though is the implementation of memory loops and memory sequences - and again the Burton clip would be an example - which self-reflexively mark and perform the work of establishing continuity.  And photographs as sort of condensed flashbacks are also used prominently in many different texts (visual and otherwise), for obvious reasons. But then, it also depends on the serial figure - in the Sherlock Holmes, Fu Manchu, and Fantomas narratives episodes of disappearances and reappearances (often in a new guise) constitute important links; the stories around figures like Frankenstein’s creature, Dracula, or Tarzan are organized very differently.

Shane Denson's picture

Interiority/exteriority: on what matters when

Jason, after reading your own fascinating post today, I think I understand better the parameters of your question, and I think the beginning of an answer might be found in the contrast between Breaking Bad’s Walt (a series character, in our terminology, but one who often exhibits a self-reflexive potential to comment not only on his world but on the medium that frames it) and a serial figure like Frankenstein (the one that I’ve done the most work on). I agree with Ruth and Frank that it always depends on the specific text and context, and so it’s not just a typological contrast I’m making—like Batman, Frankenstein (and the monster) have also alternated between the "series character" & "serial figure" forms of existence, i.e. these things are in motion, and that motion describes a historical dimension of the figures’ seriality. But a figure like Frankenstein’s monster defines "what matters," i.e. what matters serially, in terms of almost purely external factors, very different from the interiority that we (on the basis of our serial viewing) infer in the case of Walt. What matters with a figure like Frankenstein’s monster is not interiority at all or diegetic backstory, but just the circumstances of production and the surface-level irritations that arise: anchored diegetically (most centrally in the creation sequence and the monster’s look), these invoke a seriality of extradiegetic comparisons—how is the creation sequence framed, and how does it compare to James Whale’s versions? Does the monster have a flat head, neckbolts, highwaters and thick boots? How does it compare to the iconic Karloff image? While this is clearly an extreme case, I think maybe it outlines the parameters of the series character/serial figure distinction as one of serial interiority/serial exteriority. Within these parameters, then we can start the more detailed (and difficult) work of sorting out borderline cases like Batman or coming to terms with the self-reflexivity of a deeply characterized figure like Walt.

Jason Mittell's picture

Series/serial characters

Shane,

I see the distinction you’re making between series & serial characters, and agree that it’s a useful one. I’m curious about the boundary cases like Batman where he’s a serial figure lacking clear continuity, except for when he’s embedded in a series that shares a continuous thread. How can we tell the difference? What cues signal readers/viewers that this Batman is distinct from another? I do think that it’s more tied to specific cases, with each medium and serial/series having its own markers of continuity/discontinuity (and different consumption contexts triggering distinct perspectives), but I’d love to see research on how consumers navigate these muddy waters.

Shane Denson's picture

muddy waters

Jason, this is a problem I’ve encountered in very practical terms: my 9-year-old son discovered Batman a few years ago but really got into it this year—first through a Lego Batman game on his Nintendo DS, then the films and comics. For his age, I would say he’s pretty media- and narrative-savvy, and yet there were some difficulties trying to understand the discrepancies between these (and it’s these discrepancies that lead me to speak of plurimedial rather than transmedial serialities at work here). Some things were easy: the several Robins that one can unlock in the game are explained by reference to the comics (and the history of retcons, etc., that always test the boundaries of, but generally reinstate continuity). But the status of comics as telling the "real" story is far from clear for him, and it’s interesting to see how he constructs canons, draws distinctions, and comes to terms with discrepancies. In general, I would say that he alternates between the assumption that there is a definitive story that could in principle be deciphered and the attitude that all of these versions are just that: versions, tellings (i.e. primarily medial rather than narrative events). The really interesting thing, though, is that he’s apparently able to switch quite easily between these modes (I have to admit I probably have more difficulties). But watching him navigate these alternatives has highlighted some of the texts’ mechanisms for me: for example, as Ruth points out, the scene shown here simultaneously establishes continuity (defining the true continuity by revisiting origins) but self-reflexively marks that fact as well (emphasizing through plurimediality that it’s re-visiting ground covered differently elsewhere). I think my son has come to the point where he can appreciate both (like Frank said, serial self-reflexivity is not just an academic invention), and I think that’s a sign of really understanding the current status of Batman as a borderline case. But that only happened after watching Batman Begins’ re-telling of the origin story and confronting other texts like comics that, after several pages, acknowledge the reader’s surprise that this Batman is not Bruce Wayne but then explain the recent proliferation of Batman, Inc. I guess it’s cues like these, both acknowledging discontinuity and explaining (establishing) continuity, that (after repeated exposure) guide readers through the muddy waters.

Frank Kelleter's picture

Wonderful exchange, thank you

Wonderful exchange, thank you all! What emerges for me is the crucial importance of historicizing perspectives on these distinctions (serial/series, figure/character), and not just as an additional interesting way of looking or talking about them but as their very "form of existence". As always, when we’re analyzing popular series, we’re dealing with moving targets (to an extent that novels or feature films are not), so that their typologies keep evolving in feed-back with their reflexive self-observations. (Including viewers’ practices: in a very fundamental sense, I think Jason’s question is a question that addresses the historical mobility of viewing practices & sense-making repertoires). So Ruth’s point about the death and (re)birth of series characters and Daniel’s reminder of the frequent and ongoing alterations in this regard make a bunch of sense to me (and I think they ultimately point away from typological concerns).

The only time I stumbled was when you said that "irony and the serial figure don’t go well together", perhaps because I’m not sure if really all reenactments are looking for "truthful rendition of the figure’s essence". I would think where we have self-reflexivity, the possibility of irony is never far away. Isn’t there sometimes something more playful happening in these re-enactments (think of the many in-built dimensions of self-parody in the Batman universe, I think Daniel will talk about this on Friday). Or take James Bond: not exactly an example of the kind of plurimediality you’re talking about, but perhaps close enough: up until very recently (when the series claimed to take the serious road toward character essence, a kind of Frank Miller-ization of James Bond), introducing a new actor for the serial hero was always a major occasion for irony in the narrative (even with Timothy Dalton who was also, half-heartedly, advertised as the Bond that was most "faithful" to Fleming’s "original" character). 

In any case, great thread, and it keeps reminding me that the self-reflexive activities of serial narratives are not just some academic gimmick (because we like to talk about these things) but cannot be overstressed if we want to make sense of what’s going on in this particular mode of storytelling.

[PS: the thumbnail image above does not really show me. It’s a comic book supervillain called Nigel.]

       

Ruth Mayer's picture

nigel

Please try and keep Nigel contained. Once he goes serial, we’re all lost. As to irony and the serial figure: ok, I’ll modify: when full-fledged they don’t go together. Once the irony affects the serial figure to the extent that we cannot take it seriously any longer, it’s over. Doesn’t work any longer. Daniel might see this differently, but I guess I’ve seen one too many Fu Manchu jokes to go about his lightheartedly. Look what happened to Tarzan. Shudder.

Frank Kelleter's picture

contained

well, yeah, irony killed the best of us

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