New Comm Arts Prof. Derek Johnson Takes Inventive Approach to Media Franchises & Video Games

Unless you’re a media and cultural studies scholar or industry insider, you’re probably only familiar with the products of media franchises, such as the Spiderman movies and Marvel comic books. But Derek Johnson, one of the Department of Communication Arts’ newest faculty members, is interested not only in the final products but also the complex processes that create such media franchises. Professor Johnson, who joined Comm Arts in the Fall of 2011, researches media franchises in which a story is shared across multiple modes of media, such as comics, movies, music, cartoons, and television. His view of media franchises is atypical, though, because it challenges what could be called the McDonald’s model of understanding franchises, an approach that dismissively compares media franchise properties to fast food hamburgers. In this way, they are considered “copies” of a single story just as McDonald’s hamburgers are mass produced “copies” of the same recipe. This understanding regards reproductions and extensions of the story, even across multiple media, as unoriginal or uninteresting, and thus misses out on much of the creativity, complexity, and cultural significance of media franchises.

By investigating the processes behind media franchising, Johnson hopes to offer a more comprehensive approach to studying these immensely popular and profitable cultural phenomenon.  He is specifically interested in the production and fan cultures that both create franchises. In his research, Johnson examines not only the economics and intellectual property aspects of media production, but also “the meanings, values, and communities that emerge around media work.” He investigates these communities of production and consumption by exploring “how creativity is structured, managed, and imagined.” That is, if media franchising necessitates some copying of stories from one format to another, how is creativity understood among producers and fans? How is innovation understood when continuity and consistency are required and desired? How do producers share and control the use of the story across formats? How does status among parts of the franchise affect the possibilities for creativity and innovation (imagine a TV show versus the spin-off)? Johnson’s ongoing research seeks to answer these questions and others, and it is the subject of his forthcoming first book, Media Franchising: Creative License and Collaboration in the Culture Industries, which will be published by NYU Press later this year.

Professor Johnson’s interests in production and fan cultures extends to the work and play involved in video-gaming. Indeed, one of the first new classes that Johnson introduced to the Comm Arts curriculum was a course on “Digital Game Cultures.” Taught for the first time this past spring semester, this undergraduate special topics course is designed to examine the forms, institutions, practices, modes of engagement, and politics that define digital games as culture. Dealing with a relatively new and unique form of media, Professor Johnson’s instruction takes an appropriately fresh and innovative approach. While retaining all the academic rigor to be expected of a Comm Arts course, including readings, essays, and exams, he has introduced a semester-long “critical role-playing game” assignment. Designed similar to a multiplayer online video game, the assignment invites students to play as “characters” and perform “quests” in the form of micro-projects, such as short essays posted to a class blog, in-class presentations, reading summaries, paper research, and group projects. Students earn points and advance in rank throughout the course of the semester, resulting in a project grade at the end. It is an experimental approach that reflects the distinctive subject matter.

In both his research and his teaching, Johnson, who earned his PhD here at UW-Madison in 2009 and previously worked as an assistant professor at the University of North Texas, recognizes that there is a lot at stake when it comes to media and popular culture. In particular, there are both personal attachments to media as well as larger cultural meanings. Helping undergraduate students see this, Johnson says, is his favorite part of teaching. He explains that, as an undergraduate, “I remember realizing that television and other types of media culture weren’t ‘just’ entertainment, but things with cultural significance (for better or worse). I especially remember feeling like I was gaining the language to make sense of my own subjective experiences and affective investments in the media, yet also in relation to the immense power it had over my everyday life.” Johnson’s goal as a professor in Comm Arts is to help students have similar transformative experiences, which allow them to understand, criticize, and enjoy media in new ways.