A comedic conversation with a media studies professor | College of Media, Communication and Information
J. Richard Stevens is an associate professor of media studies in the College of Media, Communication, and Information at the University of Colorado at Boulder, where he studies popular culture, new media theory, and digital media skills. He contributed to the book “Articulating the Action Figure: Essays on the Toys and Their Messages”, which came out in March. Recently, Stevens attended Denver Comic Con, where he participated in several panels and attended events with CMCI graduate students. The following conversation has been edited for style and clarity.
How many times have you attended the convention and what sets this year’s event apart?
I’ve attended Denver Comic Con since it first appeared in 2012. So I guess that makes this year the sixth trip. I used to watch shit in college, mostly science fiction. Denver Comic Con began as a crossroads of research, education, and popular culture. Its host organization, pop culture class, is a non-profit group dedicated to improving children’s literacy through comics and pop culture. The research conference integrated into Denver Comic Con was originally hosted by area academics, but now has a national draw. And of course, Denver was recently named the Indie Comics Capital of North America, making popular culture a strong natural offering with plenty of local talent. Denver Comic Con is also unusual for the large amount of children’s programming it offers.
This year’s event had the highest attendance ever – although it will be a few weeks before we get the final numbers – and I understand attendance could approach that of New York Comic Con, which is the second largest such event, after San Diego Comic Con.
Several CMCI students came. What types of majors did these students have? Were they all from the same department or were there students from different fields?
We had several CMCI students involved in the research component of the convention. Page 23 is a comic-con-integrated research conference that brings together scholars from across the country interested in the study of popular culture. Graduate students from media studies and journalism departments presented their research to an audience of academics and amateurs. Additionally, some graduate students from the English department presented research.
I also saw undergraduate and masters students in the audience for some of the research panels. I saw some of my information science colleagues at one of my panels and met one of the advertising, public relations and media design faculty members on the floor . CMCI and CU were therefore quite present at the convention.
What is the benefit of attending the conference for CMCI students?
Benefits vary by discipline. My home department is media studies, and we emphasize public engagement in our research activities, using knowledge to facilitate social exchanges and bridges to community. Popular culture events are great places for this type of work, where a researcher must learn to be able to code-switch between communicating with peers and with audience members in the same room. It helps students learn to demystify their expertise in order to create shared knowledge with the public. And that, in turn, gives us the ability to bring our knowledge to the communities that can use it.
It is also a good place to see the development of culture happening in the wild. Many of the theories and constructs we apply to examine social issues can quickly be grounded in passionate fan disagreement.
And finally, it exposes our students to the difficulties of communicating with willing but inexperienced communicators. Many of the fan conflicts that permeate our culture owe as much to miscommunication as to differences in values or opinions. Learning to mediate disputes and help participants in a conversation reach agreement, even if only on terminology, is valuable experience for students.
Have students participated in panels or made other contributions that stood out?
I thought several were great. It is difficult to choose individual personalities, because it is impossible to see all the panels.
One of our students, Rachel Watson, participated in both the academic track and a fan track. It takes a lot of courage, because talking about science fiction in front of popular audiences is more difficult than talking about it to academic peers. But all of our students have contributed interesting work on popular culture issues.
It looks like your son joined you on a panel about superhero toy franchises. What was the benefit of including children in this discussion?
It was an experience for me. Chris Bell and I have been working on a book about Hasbro and its relationship with media companies. The book examines the political economy involved in creating culture in order to sell toys, but it also explores fan involvement in these texts. So we thought we’d host a fan panel to discuss some of the different ways fans interact with Hasbro properties.
We brought lots of toys, showed advertisements, cartoon and movie clips and comic strips. We’ve traced the narrative histories of the GI Joe and Transformers franchises over the past 40+ years. We used a bit of theory and put a simple analysis in layman’s terms for the audience.
Part of the point in doing this was to propose that while we all gravitate to the brands that Hasbro pushes, our narrative connections are quite different from each other, due to different media experiences, exposure to different eras of programming and many other variables that influence values and attitudes. So after Chris and I briefly explored the differences in our own readings of the original texts, we asked the kids to do the same.
My son and daughter were on stage with us, and after presenting a selection of media and analyzing it, our children explained their own interpretations of the text: what they liked and what it meant to them.
It was fun to involve my son in this experiment, although I think we’ll work on some more microphone etiquette before trying something like this with him again.
What’s been the craziest outfit you’ve noticed this year?
Oh, there were several. Maybe my favorite was the star wars/The beauty and the Beast mixing group. There were great costumes that caused a stir. I especially liked the families who wore coordinated costumes.
I can’t cosplay when I attend because I often have to switch to academic presentation mode. My son wore his Lego Batman costume for half the day on Saturday, and it was fun to see him getting compliments.
What’s the best part of attending Denver Comic Con?
Well, the best is stimulation. Not only do I have a dozen new ideas for research projects, but engaging with fans gives me insight into why so many of these texts become so powerful for so many people. It’s great to also interact with those who produce this culture and dig into their thought processes and values.