Tom Welling as teenage Clark Kent, in one of his ubiquitous red-and-blue outfits.

Smallville is filmed in Vancouver, Canada, but the producers take great pains to present a nostalgic image of small-town, Midwestern United States.

The homecoming parade that begins the series depicts Smallville before the big meteor shower, which brings Clark’s spaceship to Earth.

The crowd watching the parade looks up at the rain of fire from the sky. This image is like countless images of alien invasion from 1950s sci-fi films.

Smallville spends a good deal of money on CGI (character generated imagery), and the pilot, of course, sets the precedent.  Here, a CGI meteor heads towards town.

A meteor crashes into a building on Main Street which has been decorated in Smallville High School colors — not coincidentally, red and yellow.

Meteors from outer space — among them is a small ship carrying Kal-El from Krypton.

According to the Superman canon, Jonathan and Martha Kent find baby Kal-El’s crashed spaceship and adopt him as their own.

After the meteor shower, the “Creamed Corn Capital of the World” sign is replaced with a “Meteor Capital of the World” sign.

The exterior of Smallville High School, again, decorated in red and yellow.  The producers consistently fill the mise-en-scene with red, yellow, and blue.

The WB made a name for itself in teen angst with Dawson’s Creek, which focused on the trials and tribulations of several unnaturally verbose teenagers, one of whom is now pregnant with Tom Cruise’s baby.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer marked The WB’s first foray into combining teenage angst and supernatural activity, a similar formula to the one that has made Smallville a success.

George Reeves was one of the first actors to play the Man of Steel (the first was actually Kirk Alyn).

The first-ever appearance of Superman in a comic book, in Action Comics #1 in June 1938.

During WW2, Superman did his patriotic duty by foiling the Nazis (as did many contemporary fictional stars, by the way, including cartoon characters like Daffy Duck and Bugs Bunny).

In the 1970s and 80s, Superman came to life in the image of Christopher Reeve, who is most known for humanizing the character and conferring a sense of pathos, especially in Superman II.  Reeve later guest-starred on Smallville before his death in 2004.


Smallville and New Media mythmaking
Twenty-first century Superman

by Cary M. Jones

 “I stand for truth, justice, and…other stuff,” Clark Kent says while trying to outline his platform for class president candidacy in an episode of The WB’s top-rated series, Smallville (2001-present). This figure of Superman is as American as football stars and homecoming queens. His innate American-ness has allowed him to evolve over the years, from cultural form to cultural form, being reinvented whenever there’s a job for Superman. Created by Alfred Gough and Miles Millar, Smallville, which sets the Superman myth in a present-day high school in mythical Smallville, Kansas, transforms a pervasive cultural figure into a marketable form for today’s age 12-34 demographic. This very flexibility makes Superman an ideal case study for examining the shifting processes of media production and consumption, especially during 2001-2004. During that time, teen-oriented programming increasingly began to take advantage of the marketing possibilities offered by new media outlets. Henry Jenkins, a major scholar in the study of fan communities, has recently outlined this transition in the context of:

"…the interactions that occur among media consumers, between media consumers and media texts and between media consumers and media producers. The new participatory culture is taking shape at the intersection between three trends:           

  • New tools and technologies enable consumers to archive, annotate, appropriate and recirculate media content.
  • A range of subcultures promote do-it-yourself (DIY) media production, a discourse that shapes how consumers have deployed those technologies.
  • Economic trends favoring the horizontally integrated media conglomerates encourage the flow of images, ideas and narratives across multiple media channels and demand more active modes of spectatorship" (Jenkins 2002, 157).

For the purposes of exploring the significance behind the return and metamorphosis of one of the most beloved U.S. legends, I plan to look at Smallville through the lens of the new media trends which Jenkins describes, trends which force us to go beyond a model of producer/consumer and look at the cultivation of fan interaction, especially on the Internet, as an expansion of the television text itself.

I will initially give a brief overview of the previous models of television theory which have paved the way for examining a program like Smallville with respect to the surrounding extra-television texts generated by the media industry as a whole, the show’s producers and marketers, and the fans themselves. In the next section, I address critical reception of the show itself, and the ways in which the return of the Superman character and the comic book genre in general can be said to be symptomatic of admittedly nebulous cultural concerns. Establishing Superman as a character deeply embedded with cultural meaning allows us to look at how The WB adapted and reworked that character to specifically address the interests and concerns of particular fan communities — primarily the network’s young target demographic. I will then turn to a closer examination of Jenkins’ third point listed above in the context of Smallville and The WB itself, briefly outlining these developing strategies of synergy. My goal is to provide a framework for a discussion of the appropriation of historically established formats — which include fanfiction, fan filmmaking, community-building/interaction, and hacking — for fan interaction with the television text.

Although the proliferation of fan communities on the Internet continues to be a rich topic of inquiry, this paper will focus more on the ways in which Smallville’s production and marketing has been informed by the historic existence of television fandoms, the knowledge of previously established counter-cultural fan practices, and the availability of multiple mainstream platforms for the distribution of information. By looking at reviews, extra-television texts produced by The WB, statements by the show’s producers and marketers, and documentation from business and advertising trade papers, I hope to show that between 2001 and 2004 The WB pursued a logical strategy in response to subversive uses of the ever-expanding text — co-opting the subversive act and re-integrating it into the show’s text and marketing. Significantly, this strategy is becoming increasingly more common as the entertainment industry turns to theories of convergence and synergy. Finally, I will look at recent fan productions to suggest that this isn’t the end of the story. While digital technologies have infiltrated the world of media production and consumption at a remarkable pace, the ways in which fans watch TV can never entirely be predicted.

Consumption of television

The continuing evolution of how current television texts are consumed, particularly by the younger generation, stands as a solid example of what Lev Manovich in The Language of New Media calls “the computerization of culture,” which

“not only leads to the emergence of new cultural forms such as computer games and virtual worlds; it redefines existing ones” (9).

Since the advent of the Internet, the methods by which a television show is marketed and consumed have undergone drastic change in a short time period, as have media producers and consumers’ willingness to accept that change. What is at stake in the study of television now is nothing less than an alteration of how “real” the world of a television show like Smallville appears to fans, and how culture producers encourage a greater investment in the show's overall world.

Indeed, television theorists have repeatedly addressed the medium’s ability to suture viewers into a narrative which is much larger than a single episode of a TV series. In 1975, Raymond Williams wrote that television’s

“inherent properties as an electronic medium altered our basic perceptions of reality, and thence our relations with each other and the world” (11).

His theory that television ought to be viewed as a planned flow rather than an individual program text informed the thinking of subsequent critics to follow, including Nick Browne, whose concept of the “supertext” questioned “the limits of the text ‘proper’ and its formal unity,” and suggested that television must be analyzed ideologically in the context of the various

“introductory and interstitial materials — chiefly announcements and ads — considered in its specific position in the schedule” (71).

Yet as John Caldwell points out, these ideas, while new to the academic world, were in practice in the television industry long before film theorists caught on, since

“flow theory actually existed in network programming departments since the early 1950s” (2003, 133).

In the interest of teasing out the marketing and programming strategies at work in Smallville during what can be considered a transitional time in media history, it is worth noting that the entertainment industry is always two steps ahead.

Though Williams and Browne effectively introduced the idea that the television viewing experience must be analyzed in the context of all the ancillary materials that surround it, neither theorist concentrates on the relation that these “supertexts” have to ways in which audiences consume them. In the British school of cultural studies, John Fiske encouraged cultural analysts of television to consider three different levels of text: the program onscreen, the secondary texts generated by the entertainment industry such as

“studio publicity, television criticism and comment, feature articles about shows and their stars, gossip columns, fan magazines, and so on,” and finally the texts produced by viewers themselves (319).

Although he acknowledged that these levels intersect to a certain extent, the advent of new media studies requires a more thorough examination of how producer texts and consumer texts play into each other, complicated by the ever-increasing availability of information and formats by which this information is transmitted.

Previous studies on the nature of fan culture have enabled cultural theorists to look at fandom as an appropriation of popular texts that itself produces significant texts. Henry Jenkins’ 1992 book Textual Poachers elucidated the discourse that surrounded fandom in the days before the Internet, especially in regard to how contemporary popular media characterized fan culture. Jenkins writes that the fan

“constitutes a scandalous category in contemporary culture, one alternately the target of ridicule and anxiety, of dread and desire” (1992, 15).

Indeed, public media tended to categorize the fan as “other,” which insured that fans would more likely keep their fannish tendencies under wraps, for fear of achieving societal outcast status. Central behind this practice of the media, Jenkins suggests, was the idea that in essence

“fans assert their own right to form interpretations, to offer evaluations, and to construct cultural canons” (1992, 18).

As cultural analysis of (previously deemed) “low-culture” texts has become more widespread, so has the idea that fans’ appropriating texts functions as a logical extension of TV viewership. Jenkins’ use of the word “canon” to describe fan practices of cultural reorganization and placement of value is worth noting as well. Though the word has specific connotations in film and media studies, throughout this paper I will use it to refer to a set of agreed-upon facts in a particular cultural work — this is the meaning ascribed to “canon” in the world of online fandom. The appropriation of a word that usually references “high” culture serves as another example of fans’ subversive privileging of popular texts. But at this point the fan definition has become so popular that it’s impossible to pinpoint the original act of transgression.

For the purposes of this paper, I refer to fans as “mainstream” or “cult,” which takes as its cue Jenkins’ distinction between “viewers” and “fans.” Jenkins, of course, refers to pre-Internet fan cultures, where

“the difference between watching a series and becoming a fan lies in the intensity of their emotional and intellectual involvement” (1992, 56).

Though this trait pertains to television consumers in the digital age, their tendency to interact with the TV text in ways which exceed just “watching a series” has grown to the point that it is necessary to distinguish between fans who move on the Internet in a TV-industry-sanctioned way (mainstream) and fans who appropriate new peripheral texts in a way that can be considered subversive and more in line with what Jenkins originally described as fandom. Though total immersion in a TV series does not have the same social stigma as it did in 1992, the need to divide fans into mainstream and cult groups indicates that fandom remains an elusive, constantly transmutable cultural force. What mainstream and cult fans of Smallville have in common, however, is a willingness to consume texts in different formats produced by The WB outside of the narrative space of the show itself. Part of the reason for this extra-textual success lies in the initial construction and marketing of the show itself, and its roots in a pervasive U.S. myth.

Why Superman?

The entertainment industry by nature is reticent to take extreme risks. Certain aspects of the Superman story and Smallville’s narrative construction have insured that the show's content would provide a solid traditional foundation for the sort of synergistic structure likely to appeal to younger consumers of the television show and extra-television texts — younger viewers which The WB targets as part of its overall brand identity as a network. The WB itself was launched in March, 1995, largely in the successful footsteps of the Fox Network. Although Fox branded itself as an edgy, youth-oriented network off the bat, The WB first targeted ethnic minorities with urban sitcoms (like its primary competitor, UPN), and then moved on to establish a late-afternoon cartoon block, WB Kids, which brought in more youthful viewers.[1] In the late 1990s, The WB began to specifically target the teen demographic, benefiting directly from Fox’s example. According to a 1998 article in the New York Times,

“Jamie Kellner, chief executive officer at the WB television network and former president of the Fox Broadcasting Company, said WB had largely been created to appeal to teen-agers and young adults” (Weintraub, E2).

Shows like Dawson’s Creek and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which focused on teenage protagonists, served to pull in viewers aged 12-24 and helped to make the network’s reputation as a powerhouse of teen programming, a reputation that was fully established by 2001.[2]

Smallville co-creator Alfred Gough insists that

“there is something about Superman that permeates the American psyche. Perhaps it is because he symbolizes the best of what we want to be. Whatever it is — and especially right now more than ever — he represents a sort of comfort food for the American soul” (Quoted in Hinson, 2).

Writing in 1987, Patrick Eagan suggested that Superman “embodies a distinctly conservative strain running through the American political psyche,” and reveals

“America’s deeply rooted obsession with crime and with the maintenance of law and order” (92-93).

The virtually unanimous way Smallville’s October 16, 2001 premiere was received in the popular press elucidates the fundamental aspects of the Superman myth welcomed by post-9/11 media eager to heap praise on figures associated with U.S. patriotism.[3] Certainly television reviewers in the mainstream press would be likely to immediately identify the Superman of Smallville with his previous incarnations. Brandon M. Easton in The Boston Herald wrote,

“In this time of crisis, ‘Smallville’ offers a deeply moralistic and practical examination of the wages of power and the responsibility that it entails. This series is a perfect introduction to the long-running Superman mythos for a new generation of viewers searching for virtuous heroes on TV” (44).

And the Wall Street Journal reported that although the timing of Smallville’s premiere had not been intentional, the

“show could hardly have been better timed to appeal to the fantasy life of the nation. We could get some major mileage right now from a Man of Steel, especially one who has traditionally patrolled the skies to defend Truth, Justice, and the American Way”  (Rosett, A19).

The popular press' widespread identification of the Superman myth with an inherent American-ness at the time of Smallville’s premiere suggests that the superhero genre gains momentum in times of national stress, and indeed, the character of Superman has long been associated with fulfilling social needs. Rick Altman writes in Film/Genre that

“genres are not only formal arrangements of textual characteristics; they are also social devices that use semantics and syntax to assure simultaneous satisfaction on the part of multiple users with apparently contradictory purposes” (195).

This is a concept of polysemy taken to another level — though different viewers may consume a filmic (or for the purpose of this paper, television) text in different ways, they are all nonetheless finding something pleasurable in a certain set of predictable textual characteristics. Andrew Smith writes,

“Superman has proved adaptable to the zeitgeist again and again … in 1938, for example, Superman reflected his Depression-era origins by being something of a Super-Social Worker” (G2).

At the advent of World War II, comic book writers had Superman battling Nazis with an emphasis on nationalism and patriotism. The Adventures of Superman television series starring George Reeves, which ran from 1952 to 1957, presented a super-moralistic hero who foiled post-World War II Nazi activities and fought to maintain the U.S. social and economic status quo. And during the 70s and 80s,

“the anxieties and obsessions of the cold war era … most often take the form of a cosmic duel between Superman and the supervillain of the month, some scary figure from another star or parallel dimension who threatens to subjugate, or even destroy, the world with his awesome powers” (Eagan, 94).

The repeated application of Superman’s power to various national threats indicates an U.S. dependence on the superhero myth, and even Superman himself as a genre.

(Continued: Smallville's version of Superman)

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