Thanks for this wonderful post. I think it highlights really interesting dynamics that increasingly exist between fan, text, and producers. One issue your post describes perfectly that I find fascinating is the concept of a dual audience. Within this metatextuality is the implicit split between who this version of Batman was possibly more demographically aimed at (younger viewers) and who would be making these critiques that Bat-Mite is highlighting (older and ardent fans). Not that all animation is aimed at children, far from it, but much like the difference between Marvel: Avengers Assemble and Marvel: Super Hero Squad, the expectation may have been that Brave and the Bold would skew towards different demographics than The Batman. We see this same split in comic book movie adaptations that pull too much from esoteric source material. I think it is fascinating to see a show engage these meta-issues head on as commentary on contemporary fan-producer power relations.
Yes, good point! I too wonder about the line between hardcore fan and casual viewer. Certainly many fans are very invested in maintaining that boundary of knowledge and the perpetual recycling of origins always keeps an only occasionally interested general public at bay.
Thank you for the kind words, and the great additional thoughts. I think your point about television being the perfect form for cyclical re-consumption of the origin story as transformation is so important to consider. I am thinking of the ways in which the reveal of specific superheroes powers in these shows all resemble the same tried and true pattern of out of control discovery, focused training, and eventual mastery all packaged in the convenient confines of the medium’s episodic delivery. To your point, there is clearly a perpetual state of becoming that contemporary television already understands as crucial to re-commodifying the same heroes again and again. I wonder if the average viewer finds these stories of perpetual re-origination comforting, or if these rehashed moments are part of the shared and known superhero lexicon that does not venture too far into the complicated comic book world (even the relatively obscure characters in ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ followed an origin story template).
What a thoughtful and interesting post on TV superheroes. I agree that budget constraints likely play a major role in the withholding of the superhero in some TV shows. The Superboy series that ran from 1988 to 1992 is strong evidence of such. And it makes sense that producers would turn to TV to launch lesser known characters, such as the Flash and Green Arrow. But I also think that shows such as Smallville appeal to a central conceit of the superhero genre: ritualistic transformation. The genre is notably obsessed with repeated origin stories and the process of cyclical change/stasis (most obviously in the constant exchange between superhero identity and secret identity and narratively in terms of constantly deferred crises). Those shows that fill in the back story of Clark Kent or Bruce Wayne appeal to a thematic interest in origins and the processes of transformation. The television form, ready-made for easy and constant cyclical re-consumption, is an ideal vehicle for this. The superhero is always in a state of be-coming, the figure pointing toward a utopian subjectivity and space (the conflation of the two evident in the choice of Smallville and Gotham as series titles) but never finally arriving. So we keep tuning in, keep re-watching.
The affective force of these images arrives, as Imani and others here have commented, from their evocations of collective memory and the collision of different temporalities, from scale, and so on. As Ryan mentions, there’s something about the documentary image in space that also lends to this vitality. I also think there’s something about the incongruence of flatness and three dimensional space, of the static time of the image and the dynamism of lived time, that is affectively arresting - that asks us to read/experience the landscape differently.
As a fan of Negativland, Craig Baldwin, etc. I was interested in your (and Fairey’s) use of the term “culture-jamming.” How productive do you think this concept is in the present day, now that the commercial incorporation of street art is such a commonplace? Thinking of this example shared on Twitter: https://twitter.com/MoscaMaurer/status/559060072886960128/photo/1 That process has a history too. Even Wild Style deals with graffiti artists getting their work put into galleries and dealing with their changing sense of self.
I enjoyed your piece. Thanks!
Sunny, thank you for your insight and comments. You know, I do agree that the Marseilles Unframed images are intriguing for the very reasons that you mention. They are absolutely enormous in size, and consequently impossible to ignore for a moment or two as one passes by. Still, I would question whether, just as you stated, the recycled use of the images lose their potency and power as JR re-contextualizes them in public spaces. In my opinion, the wheat pasted images in D.C. and at the Ellis Island hospital hold a bit more historical clout than some other Unframed projects. Could these photographs seem more iconic or memorable to me be because I am American, and the memories and narratives surrounding the 1968 Memphis sanitation workers strike (and consequent assassination of MLKjr) are a part of my history? I am not sure. I haven’t thoroughly researched the Marseilles images yet, but the iconic nature of the photographs don’t resonate in the same manner as the “I am a Man” image or the general immigration - “American Dream” narrative does. I chose to focus on these two narratives in my prezi, for this very reason; they are relevant to me. JR also says that that is the beauty of this type of work. It is hard to predict who will be affected by which images, but collective community experiences do unite. For example, I have no doubt that the residents in this D.C. neighborhood identity with #IamaMan since riots exploded at 14th and T streets in 1968 after King’s assassination. Becoming visible through SCALE is also quite relevant today as many periphery communities feel as if their voices aren’t heard, as if their lives don’t matter as much as others (hence the #BlackLivesMatter). The image in D.C. is a more special case than some others, since it references events that shook this neighborhood and reflects the general reverence that many American communities have for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the photographer (the ‘First Civil Rights Photographer’) who shot it, Ernest C. Withers.
Fascinating stuff, Imani, thanks for sharing! There’s something jarring about seeing history pulled out of books and newspapers and photo albums and interjected into the everyday of the here and now. What’s interesting to me is the large-scale (literally) imposition of history on the present and the narratives of passers-by. Your comment on the use of iconic photography is interesting—do you know if there is any sort of marker or device to contextualize the photograph? Absent iconicism or some sort of connection or marker, I think, along the lines of Sunny’s comment above, the images lose some of this affective power. Though I think that they can still have an effect if the image is arresting or explicit enough in its message. Both of these situations risk re-imagining or shaping the narrative in their image (some pun intended), but this is the point of such displays, I think.
This is a great addition. I think it’s pretty clear that Fairey no longer has the same intent for this campaign, and I do not intend to make any claim to the contrary. He’s explicitly told interviewers that he is a capitalist who has no problem monetizing his work, notably in the clothing line you’ve mentioned. Rather, I think it is quite far from the original intent, but merely hoped to note that in my case happened to retain this one function. Thank you for spurring this clarification. What is most interesting to me is how dissent, or the perceived rebellious nature of the work (the filling of the empty sign, as you put it), is leveraged in the larger consumer culture that is the subject against which the perceived rebellion takes place. The clothing is also an example of this. Thanks for the comment!
I’m surprised you didn’t mention Obey Clothing (founded in 2001). Shepard Fairey turned his anti-brand into a brand long before Hennessy came knocking. I would argue that yes, an image can be both an advertisement and art, but a piece can’t stand for anti-commercialism and function as a logo for a clothing line at the same time. The whole premise of the Andre image as a disruption was that it looked like a logo but was not—it appeared to be advertising something but it was just an empty sign; a signifier without a signified. Of course, a sign can’t remain empty for long, and soon enough it became associated with both Fairey’s anti-consumerist message, as well as Fairey himself. The image contributed to a cult of personality of the type that many artists enjoy. Had Fairey refused to cash in on the image, I would agree that it could still retain its original intent. I might even agree that he could do a one-off Hennessy logo without completely undermining the message. If it still functions for some people as a reminder to question their surroundings that’s certainly a positive residual effect of the original campaign, but it relies on the receiver’s knowledge of cultural history of a prior generation. I disagree with the claim that current iterations of the image have the same intent—the intent is pretty clearly about promoting a clothing brand. If Fairey really wanted they Obey campaign to retain its subversive force, he should not have leveraged it as a logo for his clothing line.