Faris Yakob of Genius Steals sits down for a conversation about how fictional universes grip our attention. This chat wanders quite a bit as we chart corners of pop culture and strategy. As usual, Faris makes it worth a listen and a share.
Related Links: Intertextuality. Henry Jenkins, Mark Millar: Millarworld and Netflix, Radiohead 0110. There are tons more mentions in here. Ping @apierno or @faris for links to other mentions. This convo sprawls out of bounds quickly.
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[00:00:29] Adam Pierno: All right. Welcome back to another episode of The Strategy Inside Everything. I’m very excited today, and I know that I say that in every episode, but today is even more exciting than usual because we have someone that I’ve been following for a long time on twitter, watching talks from and reading books. This is Faris Yakob, welcome.
[00:00:51] Faris: Hello, thank you. It’s very nice to be here.
[00:00:54] Adam: Faris, it feels to me like the people who listen to this show probably already know who you are from — I knew you from Twitter going back a long ways, I read Paid Attention when it came out, but for those who don’t know, would you give people a quick download on who you are and what you’ve been up to?
[00:01:15] Faris: Absolutely yes, let’s start now. I’m Faris, hello. As you pointed out, the author of a book called Paid Attention, which is about the nature of human attention and how advertising needs it, breaks it, uses it and how the internet changes that. With my wife, I have co-founded a nomadic consultancy called Genius Steals. For the past five years we have lived on the road, entirely itinerantly, moving from client to client, working with agencies and brands on a number of strategic and innovation-like projects. Prior to that, we spent five years in New York. My career is predominantly advertising. I was the founder of a small agency in New York under the MDC banner- Awesome Holding Company. Before that I was Chief Digital Officer of McCann Erickson in New York, and before that I spent many years at Naked in London, Sydney and New York.
[00:02:12] Adam: Awesome, great background. I have so many questions for you, but we do have a topic so I’m going to hold myself to the topic today. We are going to talk about the way that universes are created and shaped in fiction, and why those things keep popping up and growing all around us. When you brought up this idea for this topic, I thought, “Oh, yes, this is going to be a good one. This is going to be a really interesting conversation.”
[00:02:43] Faris: Fingers crossed. [laughs]
[00:02:45] Adam: [laughs] Let’s start at the top. Just now, I think when we were talking about this a while back you started the whole thing by saying, “What about Star Wars?” –
[00:02:54] Faris: I did.
[00:02:55] Adam: – and that’s one of the biggest and most famous ones, especially right now with the newest film coming out. Do you have any thoughts on that universe in particular as an archetype?
[00:03:06] Faris: Yes, absolutely. I feel that I should apologize slightly for my lack of preparation, in the sense of, I haven’t yet seen the most recent movie. It’s not even four days —
[00:03:15] Adam: Yes, neither have I, so don’t worry about it.
[00:03:16] Faris: Okay, good. No spoilers you guys. Yes, we can sort of talk about that as a sort of paradigmatic idea. When you first see the first Star Wars movie, and it opens as episode four, and it references things that happened before and after, and outside the film, you can already see that Lucas had extraordinarily expansive ambition. He had already began to build this idea that this narrative would exist within a much larger universe.
I think at the time it was pretty compelling, but we can probably start a little bit earlier because it will converge with Marvel at a certain point, about eight years ago, when they bought it. I have a thesis as to why universes are so prevalent now, but I guess my interest in them predates all of that, because I’m a geek of a certain flavor.
[00:04:15] Adam: Were you a comic book guy?
[00:04:16] Faris: Yes, I’m a huge comic book guy.
[00:04:18] Adam: I was too.
[00:04:19] Faris: I used to be a very big comic book guy. In fact, my parents just sold their house in London, finally, and the biggest issue- all I have left there apart from memorabilia is x-number, a thousand of comic books in my last leaves that need a home. If anybody listening wants to buy a lot of comics by the way, feel free to reach out, because I can’t really store them any longer. Yes, the comic universe is a really big thing, and the Marvel universe was my particular thing.
I was very interested in that and how that’s kind of- to begin with, simply because it’s such a satisfying idea to my brain, that these things interconnect. If you read anything I’ve written about creativity or ideas, I’m all about connections and combinations, and finding patterns in different places. I’ve always really like this idea that universe existed outside of the single story to single characters, and that you get this hit of recognition along with a blast of the new when a character appears in a different comic book or whatever.
That sort of intertexuality to use a much more- the more pretentious way of saying it, but certainly it’s intertexuality. Taking my English degree and applying it backwards to my childhood, I was already interested in intertexuality. I was thinking about that, and then Star Trek and Star Wars were similar kinds of ideas. There’s something very satisfying to the geeky mind that you can read encyclopedias of these fictional universes that sort of hold together in some ongoing way.
In fact, I had a friend- Ivan- who was MIT on their features- the media masters that they put together a future of entertainment for Wii conference, and he at one point was going to be that guy- a Lucas film who sort of looked after the canon. The one person who keeps track of all the different planets, characters, story lines, species and whatever.
[00:06:21] Adam: That’s huge. Now Reddit does that for you.
[00:06:25] Faris: Right, exactly. It’s sort of one of those ultimate geek positions, to own the universe in your head.
[00:06:31] Adam: What do you think — let’s talk about that exact part of the universe where George Lucas sells his company to Disney, and day one Disney says, “Okay, everything after this point is no longer canon,” and they get rid of all the novelizations and all of the — I think the whole comic book universe extension was scrapped as well. The fan uproar of, “Holy crap, all these things that we have been reading about and obsessing over are cancelled?” What does that mean?
[00:07:06] Faris: I think that is a huge thing, and I think Marvel had a very similar problem. At a certain point, after 50 years of ancillary story telly and character development, and many hands touching the body of the universe, it began to struggle under it’s own weight. The Marvel universe, the X-Men universe and the Star Wars universe got so big that no one could really do anything new without contradicting pre-existing story lines that had happened in the future or in the past.
So they sort of backed themselves into a corner a little bit, because no one was capable of writing for the universe anymore, because no one could know enough about the universe apart from that one guy who owns the canon to actually do that without making mistakes, so it became too weighty- too much difficulty. But yes, there is a huge kickback from fandom, and I’m sure we’ll probably get into the nature of fandom.
Henry Jenkins is obviously one of the great scholars about fandom and the trans media concept, which is partially about universe development, I think. The fandom is very possessive often, and if you spend a great deal of effort memorizing every lineage and story line, in the same way that a sports person would memorize baseball stats from the early parts of the baseball universe, it kind of makes sense actually, yes, why not.
Adam: You get attached to that knowledge. I can remember- I haven’t read comic books steadily for a long time. I pick up trade paperbacks or series here and there, but — When I used to read them, especially Marvel or — DC has the same thing, I can remember being confounded when I would get to a page in an X-Men or Avengers where it’s like “See issue 429 of the original book,” and thinking, “Fudge, now I have to go track that thing down to understand what that means?”
[00:08:59] Faris: Yes, you know the crossing-the-chasm model, that kind of early strategy model which Jeffery Moore- talking about how in technology adoption curves it isn’t simply early adopters [unintelligible 00:09:11] there is this chasm where there are two distinct typologies. The geeks like things that are hard because they want to test things, break things, they want to know how they are being involved, they want to have encyclopedic knowledge of certain categories and demonstrate that knowledge.
Geeks, in every category, their technology or universes have a different set of needs from the broader audience, and the challenge of the weight of the universe, especially the Marvel universe, which got very complex before filmic reboot essentially that happened, which re-wrote the comics backwards, basically. Nick Fury became a black guy- backwards in a sort of history, time, whatever, universe. There wasn’t enough ways in. they just had closed themselves off to the mass audience.
I think that’s part of the challenge of telling stories in a way that’s — In a similar way Pixar telling stories that both adults and children can get on different levels. The great challenge of universe storytelling is to not make it just an homage, just a parity or just say set of geeky references to trigger fanboy screams, but also to make a story that exists in its own right, that appeals beyond just reference and intertextuality.
[00:10:27] Adam: If we can think about the other side of it, a big part of making films now is to try to come up with something that’s a tent-pole, that’s going to be able to be a property that’s a series that has a universe. I actually told my kids, “Hey, we’re going to sit down and we’re going to read Harry Porter together.” My daughter was like, “I don’t know dad. That’s just a lot to dig into.”
She knew that there were six, seven books, and she knew that then we’d probably watch the movies and she was just thinking like, “I don’t know if I can handle all that stuff and which –” she didn’t use the word canon, but I was thinking like, “I think she’s got canon burnout. She’s got too many things in her brain and she was like, “No more. I’m closing the shop here.”
[00:11:12] Faris: I think that’s a very interesting observation, that at a certain point it becomes difficult to enter a fandom or a universe because there’s so much history you feel you have to work through. It’s like trying to get back and watch them [unintelligible 00:11:26], quite a lot of it, isn’t there? That’s quite a big commitment.
[00:11:31] Adam: The pressure to like it is so high.
[00:11:33] Faris: Yes, also. My wife just read Harry Porter series in the last two weeks. She reads very fast. But even she’s like, “It’s much more fun at the very beginning, where it’s light and it’s short.” Even- you can see it in the distribution of pages in the Harry Porter books. By the end, books like four or five times the length fit their massively complex storylines are weaving together, different elements and such.
[00:11:58] Adam: The first one’s pretty breezy.
[00:11:59] Faris: It is very short and very breezy. But that feeling of, “Do I want to commit to something this serious?” I think it plays a lot of people and it’s part of the barriers, the previous barriers, to Star Wars or Star Trek, I suppose.
[00:12:16] Adam: They rebooted Star Wars- or they didn’t reboot Star Wars, but they extended Star Wars, they rebooted Star Trek. Then they told us, “No, it’s not a reboot. It connects to the Star Trek universe —
[00:12:31] Faris: Yes, exactly [crosstalk] No, go on.
[00:12:36] Adam: Do you think that those relaunches are ways in for people or are they more daunting for — Obviously for Star Wars I can see through ticket sales that it’s not daunting at all, but for new customers who go back in time and watch the original Star Trek series, for example, or download the next generation to try to understand.
[00:12:55] Faris: Here’s my whole take. TNG is the best Star Trek. By far it’s just brilliant.
[00:13:00] Adam: Yes, that is the holistic.
[00:13:02] Faris: Picard is by far the greatest captain.
[00:13:04] Adam: He’s hard to not like.
[00:13:06] Faris: He’s amazing. Data is the best version of that character which appears in all the seasons [unintelligible 00:13:11], whatever. Yes and no. I think they are designed to be ways in, and it could be taken too far. If you keep rebooting something, then people start to lose some relationships to the universe, I feel like. Transfomers movies have been rebooted so many times now. They are not really even films anymore. They’re sort of- I don’t know exactly what they are. Quite fun visual spectacles, but I don’t know if they’re universe building in the same way.
[00:13:43] Adam: Yes, I don’t know what they are doing.
[00:13:44] Faris: No. I’m not sure, either. But they do. They hang together. The voice of Optimus Prime is the same guy that did the voice of the cartoon Optimus Prime. They have this continuity, but it’s a bit broken. I do think they design through ways in. I think one of the challenges that Marvel has faced in recent years- because if you look at the Marvel comics, sales are down quite [unintelligible 00:14:06] in the last couple of years, which is very weird, considering how big Marvel movies currently are. You would see that as being a massive advertisement for the comics. The challenge —
[00:14:20] Adam: I think they’ve turned into toy sales.
[00:14:22] Faris: Yes. That’s fine too. I’m sure Lucas had a very similar point of view. Toys are very profitable business. Marvel was bankrupted and then was bought by a toy company. Marvel in 1996, or 2000- 1996, I think, went bankrupt. Their toy vendor, their exclusive partner basically bailed them out and bought them. That’s where Avi Arad came from. All those dudes that masterminded the Marvel Studio years later were all toy guys who basically —
[00:14:53] Adam: They understood.
[00:14:54] Faris: Yes, exactly. They understood ancillary marketing and revenue streams, but I think —
[00:15:01] Adam: Let’s go back to your point about the comic book because it seems like they sacked the writer’s room and now they don’t have anybody there manning the ship for the future, which is probably where they get all the great material from.
[00:15:13] Faris: I agree. It’s very unfortunate, because there’s still 50 years of- I guess, preexisting, pre-Marvel film canon to pull from, but the stuff they’re doing now all ties into one show of the series, the Infinity War series, which is Jim Starlin and George [unintelligible 00:15:30] in early ’90s maybe. I have them all, they’re very good.
[00:15:34] Adam: Yes, they’re great.
[00:15:35] Faris: They’re massive, space opera, scaled things. They really play to this idea of universe is huge and interrelated because they’re one of those set pieces, the crossover set pieces that Marvel used to do, which came back with Civil War and that kind of stuff.
[00:15:53] Adam: Right.
[00:15:54] Faris: Marvel[unintelligible 00:15:55] is in rebooting itself endlessly. They’re always trying to get new readers. It keeps launching new versions [unintelligible 00:16:01] and killing them a year later. I think that’s disrespectful to the audience. They change point writers and artists a lot, so even I find it- to be honest, I’ve veered away from those comics, even as much as I like the history of them. I end up reading old X-Men, if anything at all. I’m more interested in the creator owned universe system that I’m sure we can get to because there’s some fun stuff happening there.
[00:16:28] Adam: You’re going into something really — When you were saying it’s disrespectful, and how our universes reboot and you’ve mentioned the Transformers, I wrote down Spider-Man. I was actually thinking of the Fox film property version of Spider-Man that it’s on. It’s fourth Spider-Man. Not the comic book, but the comic book you’re dead on, they’ve rebooted, too, and they’re shedding readers because we want continuity. We crave it.
[00:16:55] Faris: Yes. These kinds of misstructures do allow us a degree of flexibility, but what got really boring with the Fox version of Spider-Man is that they’d reboot it to get a younger actor who’s less expensive, essentially, or whatever, and then tell the origin myth again and again and they’re like, “Nobody needs to see this Spider-Man origin myth over and over again. No one needs that.” Which is why it was great when they snuck him into Avengers, having done some negotiations on that tip.
It’s like, “There he is. You know who he is. He’s Spider-Man. Don’t worry about that.” It was awesome because it wasn’t pandering to — I have to explain from the [unintelligible 00:17:2] how this whole thing works. It’s like we’re seeing some knowledge, which is nice in a sort of way, right?
[00:17:34] Adam: Yes. That was a really —
[00:17:35] Faris: Then I do think the X-Men franchise under Fox had some high points and some wavering points. When they started to really mess with the timelines and got more interesting again, frankly. It got a lot more fun to me when they started playing through different times.
[00:17:56] Adam: Absolutely. Again, that’s a famous- the Days of Future Past was a famous story that they quasi brought back. It’s not true to the — It’s not. It goes off book, but it’s still a really interesting part of the the universe.
[00:18:07] Faris: Yes. It’s a story that was two issues long in X-Men [laughs] I think Chris, whatever his name was, the great X-Men writer, Chris —
[00:18:17] Adam: Chris Claremont.
[00:18:17] Faris: Yes. Claremont, I think Byrne did it in two issues, but it’s all got some time travel stuff get the [unintelligible 00:18:23] don’t worry about it.
[00:18:26] Adam: Right. Yes.
[00:18:27] Faris: But yes, always, reboots basically- they are driven by strategic imperative, which is that they own this proper,ty they’ve paid for it. Fox bought X-Men rights for $1.5 million when Marvel was really struggling, basically, and needed a little bit of cash. That was a very cheap piece of IP to buy, but it served them very well for quite a long time.
[00:18:51] Adam: Do you think they did okay on that investment?
[00:18:52] Faris: I think they did fantastically well on that investment [laughs] because that gets down to, I guess the point- not the point, but one of the thoughts about why universes are now so obvious and what the strategy behind it is and what Marvel strategy was as soon as Avi got in charge was the same thing. Avi’s whole approach to Marvel has been to acquire universes. Everything he does is buying- or every big deal he’s structured are the biggest deals Marvel’s ever done, including the most recent one with Fox, which is buying the Avatar universe, the Simpsons universe. He’s buying massive amounts of IP.
[00:19:32] Adam: Right. Extendable IP.
[00:19:33] Faris: Yes. A sort of extendable IP. Premiums that he can lock in audiences for 20 years. I think that’s the point.
[00:19:44] Adam: You wonder how much further it can go. It’s a Percy Jackson and that whole series. Are there new universes that we should be looking for, or do you think — [crosstalk] Yes, go.
[00:19:59] Faris: The new ones are slightly harder, because the new- depends where they come from and how much they cost. To me, it’s like how big is the audience that it brings to the table, because my basic thesis is something like, post the year 2000, when you can guarantee that every single person you met anywhere in the world had watched Friends, because they did. Multiculture had become monoculture from not monoculture. Monoculture was a function of mass media.
It create this monocultural system where everyone watched MTV or- I was aware of it to some degree and Friends existed- and Friends is a universe in its own right, kind of, anyway. When fragmentation began in 2000, it led us on this path towards two things, which is that we lack of mutual references, right? The more fragmented media is the more fragmented the culture becomes. Because of that we don’t have things to talk about it anymore.
We didn’t have shows at the water cooler we could discuss because everyone is on different shows, and channels, and platforms, and whatever. That lack of those social objects became something I think people began to feel intuitively, while at the same time it became more and more expensive to achieve fame and scale and buy audiences directly, famously, in media terms, you could reach three quarters of America with three spots in the 80s or whatever, and now you can’t.
[00:21:33] Adam: Not even close.
[00:21:34] Faris: Exactly. That complexity and cost meant that being a filmmaker, and I- we’ve done some work with filmmakers before, [unintelligible 00:21:42] What they used to think about products is very different, every new film was a new product, a new launch, a new audience that you had to build in three weeks. That became very inefficient, I think.
They realize what has built an audience is sequels, sure, remakes, fine, but what was more satisfying in that- and I think Marvel were extraordinarily ambitious, from the very outset with Iron Man which was a huge gamble for a publishing company to take on and pay for. But once they did it and they set this framework in place, you begin to see everyone doing it. DC is trying very hard and it’s not necessarily working, but beyond that, they’re everywhere, you can see them everywhere, I think.
[00:22:32] Adam: I just read an article today about Mr. Robot, do you watch that?
[00:22:37] Faris: I did watch it, I haven’t since the most recent [unintelligible 00:22:41] I don’t think, but first season I watched all the way through, it was good.
[00:22:45] Adam: The second one kind of is- you brought up The Wire, I think later on it will be looked at like the second season of The Wire, takes you outside the story and then comes back in for season three which was awesome.
[00:22:55] Faris: Okay, cool.
[00:22:56] Adam: The article was about how the writers fill the show with Easter eggs and clues to a game that happens offline and the fans of the show on a bunch of different chat rooms dedicated to the show and on Reddit, through a bunch of subreddits, they actually try to break these codes that are hidden in the show and in fake advertisements that they sneak into the advertising pods. I was thinking, number one, I love that, I don’t try to crack the codes or anything, but just knowing that it exists and seeing something when I’m watching the show, I’m going ,”Oh, that’s probably a code. I wonder what those guys would be doing with it.”
I think it’s very interesting and a new way to engage people and to help build interest in a smaller universe. I was wondering, from you, where do you think- today, if you were an author or if you’re Iger and you’re trying to build the next universe, if you were trying to do it from scratch. Where’s the best place to do it? It was comic books, then it was television, where do you think is the best way to capture a big audience and do that, if you — [crosstalk]
[00:24:06] Faris: It’s a very interesting idea. I think, ultimately, the medium from which it originates isn’t as important as its ability to be to your point extensible and ideally have an audience already. That’s the biggest challenge, is building this audience from scratch now. The good thing about getting really passionate properties is they come with this very passionate co-audience and depending on the size of that audience. I mean, I watched the Percy Jackson films or a couple of them.
I didn’t know it was a Harry Potter rip-off before that, I’m sure it was in book form. I think it’s more there’s different approaches to this, right? Different- thinking about Iger. he recently pulled his content from Netflix. The relationship between platform and distribution and content is increasingly blurry, and has been for a while. What I thought was interesting about that particular announcement is a week later Netflix announced it bought Millarworld, are you familiar with the Millarworld?
[00:25:07] Adam: I am. I haven’t read any of the books, but I’m familiar with the- I know the author.
[00:25:12] Faris: Yes, Mark Millar’s the most absurdly fecund writer in comics. It’s surely remarkable, the amount of stuff that’s come out of his head. The films like Wanted and Kick-Ass and Kingsman are all his ideas, right? So was Civil War, a book he wrote while at Marvel, which became Captain America 2 and so was Old Man Logan which is the movie Logan from last year, he wrote that too.
He is remarkably prolific, and in a way that’s been very hard to match. Strategically speaking, when Marvel pulled that content of Netflix, the immediate reaction, less than a week later to bolster the market’s concern about that was acquiring a whole Universe of IP with the same heritage and credibility as those Marvel pre-properties because Millar was the executive creative consultant at Marvel for a long time.
[00:26:06] Adam: He was the [unintelligible 00:26:08] to say voice.
[00:26:08] Faris: Yes, exactly and he’s very good at this sort of thing. I just thought that’s really interesting that they did it. They announced it- obviously it didn’t work for a while I guess, but they announced it that week specifically to allay concerns that they had lost access to Universe. They bought one.
[00:26:25] Adam: That’s so interesting, that connection that you made, because right now, I feel that the with the announcement of Disney buying the Fox properties and all the universes that you just mentioned, I feel it’s such a corporate time, but when in doubt, the pendulum goes back to, “Let’s get the author who we know can turn out content that will turn into those universes.” Netflix has been doing that for five years, just giving artists the keys and just saying, “Hey, make something amazing and bring it to us.”
[00:26:57] Faris: It would be great- and talking about that part, the spinning off part which is the same set of vectors that create the conditions for universe strategy, if you like. It is what allows Stranger Things to exist and to get [crosstalk] greenlits by two kids that haven’t made more than one [unintelligible 00:27:20] get greenlit. Also they’re so good at it, they build the universe from other people’s universes and then own it now.
[00:27:30] Adam: They do, they own the whole[inaudible 00:27:32] of the ’80s.
[00:27:33] Faris: Exactly, but they genuinely, like- if you do anything in that reference set now, you’re pulling from Duffer, not directly from the ’80s, which is a remarkable achievement. That level of almost- I know reference of hypothesis, I don’t know.
[00:27:48] Adam: You know it’s amazing because- who was it? Who made Super 8?
[00:27:55] Faris: Abrams, right?
[00:27:57] Adam: Yes, he made Super 8 and that was the whole intention of that film, was to steal from Spielberg. It was an okay picture, but it didn’t become its own universe, there was never a call for a sequel, but you’re right. Stranger Things, when I watch that show and I see the Evil Dead poster on the wall, or I see something- Ghostbusters costumes, it’s they take ownership of those things. Even- they talk, there’s an episode where they have Kentucky Fried Chicken and they’re talking about Kentucky Fried Chicken and the ad that I remember from the 80s. I just think, “Wow, they even own that.”
[00:28:33] Faris: That’s so nicely observed, as well. It doesn’t struggle under the weight of its references because they’re telling a different set of stories that just deploys lots of the same imagery and stuff, the E.T. or otherwise. I mean, I think the Ghostbusters movie that re-maker Paul Feig, whatever his name is, was quite good, but I think it really struggled the most because it was trying to service too many references to itself.
Because it’s trapped in a set of characters and jokes appearing from the first movie to give it, I don’t know, some credibility about being part of that universe, but at the same time it doesn’t extend it, it just tell the story again with some winks to the camera. I think it struggled on that a little to be honest.
[00:29:19] Adam: That’s the same thing I think that separates Marvel and DC. Marvel, it feels that Marvel has more confidence in putting under use characters like Black Panther, who’s a critical character in the greater Avengers universe in the comic books, but in film, that would be a risk. Going back to what you said about Iron Man. I mean, if Iron Man was a risk because he is one of their top level heroes, Black Panther, I would never expect to get a film.
Marvel just keeps on putting these- just saying we have great stories. Whereas DC suffers under the weight of saying, “Look, we’re going to put Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman on one screen and it’s going- trust us, it’s going to be great, but you could tell they don’t believe it.
[00:30:02] Faris: I think there was a well documented split in DC universe that is usually expressed in terms of, Marvel characters are broken and DC characters are all Greek gods, basically.
[00:30:16] Adam: They are all God.
[00:30:17] Faris: You can’t empathize with Batman, you admire him and reading the Scott Snyder- the Batman stuff, he’s amazing but it’s never going to be you, you’re never going to be Superman, you’re never going to be Batman, you’re not going to be Wonder Woman, you know what I mean> They’re all like the fantasies of children who are like, “Oh, maybe I’m actually a secretly adopted wizard or princess or whatever.
Whereas the Marvel superheroes all become superheroes, often from very traumatic social experiences or things, right? They all struggle. They all struggle with their identity, with their responsibility, with balancing their real life. Whereas Superman’s real life is basically a joke, do you know what I mean? There’s some sort of weird division in those two and the meta-narrative, the meta-myth structure of those two universes?
[00:31:07] Adam: No, I totally agree, and when- if we’re going to go deep here on comic books, sorry to everybody listening. When image came and all those creators left and they went to create their own superhero books that were sent a lot of them, Rob Liefeld, I’m looking at you, were copy paste of characters that were already drawn. They kept that broken model, nobody went to the DC model, except, what was- Supreme was a god, but he was broken too.
[00:31:37] Faris: Yes, he was a policeman, right? He had to deal with like being up on- they are all supreme that was the Savage Dragon, Supreme was the one —
[00:31:47] Adam: He’s kind of like Superman.
[00:31:47] Faris: Yes, he sort of became the progenitor of invincible and Invincibles are a really good take on that superhero typology.
[00:31:55] Adam: He did it by breaking him, though, by saying he’s actually not- but underneath it all. Even Watchmen, they finally got it, DC- that was the first time they said, “Oh, no, they’re vulnerable.” That’s huge, and now they’ve expanded that universe and they’re trying to have it- there’s a crossover I guess coming with the regular DC Universe in Watchmen.
[00:32:13] Faris: Alan Moore, he’s be very unhappy about that, isn’t he?
[00:32:16] Adam: He is kicking a garbage can right now, wherever he is.
[00:32:18] Faris: He is usually pretty unhappy about what happens to his characters.
[00:32:21] Adam: I don’t blame him though, I don’t blame him, he should be protective of those.
[00:32:24] Faris: Yes, it’s true, obviously stories require emotional resonance and some sense of identification, otherwise it gets a bit tiresome. I do think- there was a great shift towards- in music, idea of giving up your copyrights when you record an album for a studio was default, and then became an issue with Prince famously being a slave. The same happened with comic book creators, they’re creating characters and these ideas- they never owned anything and that was a huge problem for Kirby and some of the other old trust generation creators.
[00:33:01] Adam: Until Prince gives his rights for the Batman soundtrack, ironically.
[00:33:07] Faris: Exactly.
[00:33:09] Adam: That’s conversation.
[00:33:10] Faris: The idea of owning your own creation I think became a dominant thing into a point the early ’90’s in different media, comics- when OK Computer came out, Radiohead wrote the sleeve notes saying, “Thanks to,” I think it was Sony, “Our label for letting us use our music, even though we wrote it.”
[00:33:31] Faris: Which was, I think —
[00:33:32] Adam: Somebody gets it.
[00:33:33] Faris: Yes, unlike- again, part of the drive is that allows for these things to happen now, which is, if you have an audience from prefragmentation culture you can now communicate with it directly and monetize your work without intermediaries in distribution mechanisms like record label, film studios, publishing companies, to some degree.
[00:33:52] Adam: Well, you brought up Radiohead, and I know you didn’t do that intentionally, but even thinking about universes that is a group of artists that understands- what did they do with- it was OK Computer and- what’s the album 10 years later that they used to create the binary set?
[00:34:10] Faris: In Rainbows, or?
[00:34:12] Adam: Yes, I think it was, and if you play the tracks alternating, they left these little sound bridges in there that connect every song on those two albums.
[00:34:21] Faris: That’s also —
[00:34:23] Adam: I’ll add a link, but they were building a universe of their content and nobody even caught onto it, they put out a release it was like, “I can’t believe you guys haven’t found this yet?”
[00:34:33] Faris: That’s so great, this idea that everything you make builds to something larger is to inheritingly very satisfying. I don’t know why to my brain, but I feel like not just my brain, because it seems to be across different media and kinds of creativity, this idea that rather than making one thing, make something that fits in and connects. In about 2000 and- because Netflix, right, Netflix had a chance to be a Netflix universe, but it hasn’t decided to do that, yet, anyway.
We’ll see what happens to the Millarworld but it’s experimenting the different kinds of shows. They’ll all fit together, and it’s algorithmic, and so on and so forth, to try and work out what shows will suit its audience and keep them locked in. I understand that as their strategy.
We were working with NBC when I was at making it in like 2008 maybe 2009 in that region on the rebrand, or one of their many rebrands. I often see what the acquisition strategy was for content, and they said, “We try and pick things that’ll be successful,” and I said, “That’s not very strategic, is it?” I’m like, “What is the filter?” and I gave them two thoughts. I see they go both and I left the agency shortly after this, but the first thought was, well there are mass broadcasters that have a remit to be very broad, not to be a niche channel like characters welcome on USA today or the Comedy Channel, whatever.
They are broad but they have a remit, channel four in the UK is not a universe but channel four content all fits together under their remit to service under service audiences, the government- while it’s a commercial channel, the government still owns it, and therefore it has a mandate to serve under serve audience be it minorities of different kinds sexuality, race, whatever and with that remit you can get a sense of cohesion in their properties, at least —
[00:36:29] Adam: That makes sense.
[00:36:30] Faris: Until they bought the Great British Bake Off, now all bets are off, let’s be honest.
The other thought was- well, the NBC was running at the time Superbowl sports, or around that time, and the spots are promoting their own lineup and maybe [unintelligible 00:36:49], I can’t remember, but the ads had different characters, from like Scrubs and different shows meet each other and in sort of tableau style, fifteen second stints. I was like, “That’s pretty cool,” that’s like NBC universe, that was the idea I pitched them, because I was like, remember when Friends were quite like a big deal, the Friends‘ universe was constrained to Friends they extended out into games, and coffee mugs, and T shirts and stores and experiences, because it was that big a show.
[00:37:23] Adam: It was everywhere.
[00:37:26] Faris: But there was a character who they called Ursula, who was Phoebe’s sister, her twin sister. [laughs] How geeky can I get?
[00:37:37] Adam: I’m so sad because I know exactly what you’re going to say, because I remember all that —
[00:37:41] Faris: She was- same actress, obviously, but she was playing in different NBC sitcoms before and they pulled the character into Friends, and that would be her twin sister Ursula.
[00:37:52] Adam: What was she from, Mad About —
[00:37:53] Faris: Mad About You, one of their previous [unintelligible 00:37:57] whatever. I was like, “What would be kind of cool like [unintelligible 00:38:01] made if your shows existed all in the same universe, because they all they kind of do, everyone lights up when Ursula appears because it pays off the people who know, and it doesn’t detract people who don’t know but you can work on these different levels.
[00:38:16] Adam: They did do a night where with all the shows that were on that night, it was like Seinfeld, Friends, Mad About You and I think the other one was called The Single Guy, maybe. They did a blackout night where there was a blackout in New York, and all the characters had a story that- all the shows had a story where the characters got stuck in a blackout.
[00:38:37] Faris: That’s cool, the New York blackout was a big thing it makes sense, you know what I mean?
[00:38:40] Adam: Yes, it made sense.
[00:38:42] Faris: Another thing that was really cool, I do think it’s a creative. Everything you do builds to a larger experience and pays off some things and doesn’t others, rather than starting from scratch each time, which is harder, I think.
[00:38:58] Adam: Also makes sense when I can bite off 30 minute chunks in a sitcom, versus or even a two hour movie every year, versus having to go back and collect 20 trade paperbacks of X-Men to understand- or go find the original X Factor stories to understand what will happen in the next X-Men movie.
[00:39:17] Faris: That’s something vaguely- I used to be- when the first set of films came out, my geekiness was in full swing and I’d be like, “This is what happens here, that character –” and then — Pretty quickly, the few years, I begin to let go and now I don’t really want to remember if this is exactly right in canon, or if that character there is being used properly. I think it’s a different thing now and I sort of let that rescind slightly, but in its own universe, it’s to be creative and satisfying rather than onerous. You don’t want to give the audience the job, you don’t want to give the audience a chore.
[00:39:52] Adam: I agree, let’s just enjoy the movies for what they are, and if I want to go back and read the comic books and compare notes I guess I could. I probably won’t.
[00:40:02] Faris: No, I think that’s okay, I think. I like stories that are retold in fresh new ways, in order to move them forward. So, a good example of this to get back to Star Wars, I suppose, I think, anyway, is the difference between Rogue One and the first of the new Star Wars- the name I can’t remember, the one with Rey in it.
[00:40:23] Adam: The Force Awakens.
[00:40:24] Faris: Right, okay. So The Force Awakens is J. J. Abrams remaking A New Hope, almost scene to scene, with the female protagonist, and it’s brilliant, it’s great, it’s taking the myths structure, telling it again for a whole new generation but with a female protagonist, which is necessary at this stage and it’s evolution, frankly. It’s a great movie and Rey is a really cool character and all that stuff is great, it’s not homage, it does take the same storyline, but it does retell it, rather than just tell it again, if that makes sense.
[00:40:59] Adam: It makes sense to me.
[00:41:00] Faris: The distinction is nuanced, I accept this, but I do think there is a difference, whereas Rogue One, I have not seen the new one, as I said, but Rogue One is probably my favorite Star Wars film as a film, upon watching it I was blown away by how well they had done what they did.
[00:41:17] Adam: Yes, I agree.
[00:41:18] Faris: As a story, it’s beautiful and self-contained, it’s dramatic but it’s also — They sort of disguised this in the promotions, didn’t they? No one didn’t really know it was going to be a prequel for A New Hope.
[00:41:32] Adam: In fact, they said it’s not, until I was sitting in my computer and I said, “Wait a minute I know that guy, and I’ve seen that person, and I remember that ship, and I know that.”
[00:41:40] Faris: Yes. As a film I think it’s my favorite but it’s also kind of this apotheosis of sort of almost toxic nostalgia, because the film is contained entirely in the symbolism imagery and timeline of a pre-existing narrative structure, and so you know what’s going to happen, what has to happen is the war has to come, right? Otherwise nothing else makes sense. So you know a lot of those things, and it’s like this weird example of a fan fiction, homage movie, becoming part of canon.
This sort of ultimate [chuckles] design of fan fiction is to be canon, or to do things you couldn’t do in canon like getting all the hookah or whatever that thing is called. To me, Rogue One is a particular weird example of like, it’s fan fiction, but it’s also not, it doesn’t move the story on in anyway it kind of just builds some backstory, I don’t know.
[00:42:36] Adam: But it’s somehow more satisfying.
[00:42:37] Faris: As a film, yes, because it’s self-contained in that sense, which maybe speaks against the whole universe strategy.
[00:42:43] Adam: That’s right. I watched it again just on Netflix not too long ago, and so it’s somewhat fresh in my mind, as fresh as my mind gets, and I was watching it to see — Okay, let’s pretend I’ve never seen the other movies, is there anything in here that wouldn’t connect for me or that I missed, and watching it that way and just kind of make myself closed doors to Star Wars into the greater universe, it’s still a good movie, there’s not things in there that you needed to know.
[00:43:11] Faris: In some ways it’s like how the difference between Star Trek TNG and DS9. So TNG exists in an universe, but every episode is self-contained narrative, give or take a couple of double episodes. So you can watch one and it’s like the whole emotional arc of that story is completed, wrapped up, and you go to credits. Whereas the DS9 stuff it ended up being much more like kind of expansive, multi linear, things went on, and on, and on, and that was much harder to follow unless you really wanted to be hardcore. So there’s room for both, there’s room for the self-contained nuggets of narrative in these universe that people love.
[00:43:50] Adam: That’s where things like Lord of the Rings trilogy went stray when they had a cliffhanger, where the company just, “Well we’re now going to walk this way.” The movie ends and you say, “Well hold on a minute, you didn’t finish the story, what’s going on? They’re just going to walk off like that and we don’t know what’s going to happen?” Well it’s a trilogy, it’s a part that connects to this bigger universe and I’m like, “Yes but I had only paid for this part of it, I only paid for act 2. So why am I getting left with the middle of the story? You still have to make it have a close.” What Marvel does in spades.
[00:44:24] Faris: Yes, agreed. Also The Hobbit, two parter as well, The Hobbit, that goes on forever, that movie.
[00:44:32] Adam: They could have done that in an hour.
[00:44:34] Faris: Very, very easily, and it’s slightly because they got such success with the three that they wanted to do it that way, I guess. But that structural thing is the hard bit, if you’re a show runner or poor phage at Marvel who kind of owns the overall universe for them, giving people — It’s like writing a good brief, it’s like giving people enough parameters to keep them in line, they’re giving them the freedom to write something really beautiful inside that, rather than saying, “You got to get to these points.”
[00:45:06] Adam: You still have to give — Even when the best directors for improv will give their talent, the beats, “Hey, you can say whatever you want, but I need you to eventually to get to this part of the story, this is your motivation, what you’ve heard about — curb your enthusiasm in that same way.”
[00:45:23] Faris: Yes, and you can definitely see how that can be a highly abrasive or difficult creative relationship from all the Marvel directors that get removed from their movies, because ultimately, the vision has to fit into this overall architecture or it won’t work, but at the same time, if all it does is pay off the beats you need to pay off, it won’t be a film.
[00:45:47] Adam: Right, there’s nothing interesting about it.
[00:45:48] Faris: Right. The Lord of the Rings thing, did you see recently I think Amazon is buying Lord of the Rings. I couldn’t get my head around that for a second, I was like, “I don’t have any appetite left for Lord of the Rings at all, personally.” Then someone said “Well what if it isn’t Lord of the Rings though, it’s just that universe and you can tell whatever story you want?” I was like “All right, well fair enough.” Yes, I suppose you could do that, that hadn’t occurred to me, so that’s good.
[00:46:15] Adam: That’s going to be a tough sell for me.
[00:46:20] Faris: Yes, maybe it’s because we’re different kinds of fandom, the fantasy fandom is very specific, I guess. But I just think that was boring, whereas conversely, I saw an announcement last week I think, the Archie universe is being developed more fully.
[00:46:37] Adam: You sent me this link yes, it’s detailed.
[00:46:40] Faris: I haven’t seen Riverdale, so again forgive me for my lack of preparation, but apparently it’s very interesting and a dark modern interpretation on Archie is kind of very saccharine and childish stuff, but in fact this is what led us to some degree to this topic beyond just talking about Star Wars because it’s fun, the guy who runs Archie comics is also the producer of Riverdale.
He sort of gone out and said they’re going to try and move into this whole empire and this whole universe including Sabrina the Teenage Witch, who is an Archie character, and Melissa Joan Hart being brilliant but they want to make it dark and modern and stuff, which is cool [chuckles] She was great though, a great show. The fact in the universe they have this body of IP, there’s like the Josie and the Pussycats, there’s I think Casper, there’s all kinds of superheroes in the Archie universe that no one’s ever heard of. They’re very consciously saying, this works, let’s go let’s go for it.
[00:47:36] Adam: I think they’re picking up exactly what you’re talking about, how we know that this works to get eyeballs and if we get 10% of the people who watch Riverdale to watch this other show, plus a new audience, we won.
[00:47:46] Faris: Yes exactly. I think it’s become more obviously the dominant creative strategy dujour, it works on the model of Star Wars that you can sell toys and comics and ancillary whatever licensing rights to craft these doodles and whatever, once you’ve got the characters — Once the characters have enough audience then you can sell it in lots of different ways, which is a hugely useful commercial strategy.
Then in terms of the products themselves, you can then move from audience to audience and carry them over as much as possible, but it also means to me that, once everything becomes the default or the orthodoxy, then we’ve got to start looking for the next idea.
[00:48:28] Adam: Yes, I think we could do another show about that topic, of what do we think is the next thing, unless you’re writing a book on that?
[00:48:34] Faris: I’m not, but I have been thinking about it and I don’t have strong ideas yet, so let’s let’s bounce it off.
[00:48:40] Adam: Let’s get together, we’re in the same city, should that happen, let’s talk over a pint.
[00:48:44] Faris: That would be lovely, I would very much enjoy that.
[00:48:47] Adam: Hey, before I let you go, two questions. First we’ve gone way over time here but that’s okay, it’s great conversation. First question is, do you think any X-Men will make an appearance now in the upcoming Infinity Wars.
[00:49:03] Faris: When’s next one due out, this year, next year? No, this year, right?
[00:49:07] Adam: I think early 2018, I think.
[00:49:09] Faris: I think that would be tight, to be honest.
[00:49:12] Adam: Do you think even like a post-credits scene with Wolverine walking into the frame, or Magneto?
[00:49:15] Faris: That would be pretty cool. Let’s say it would be a great Easter egg, I don’t know if even the acquisition would be- ratify whatever by that point so maybe, I think, let’s say maybe.
[00:49:29] Adam: Okay. Then question two is a much easier question that takes much less mental capacity. What do you have coming up that you’d like to tell our listeners about, anything you want to promote?
[00:49:40] Faris: It’s a great question. I am currently working on some things for clients I can’t promote, because there’s no point, but Rosie and I are probably going to publish some new things this year. Some new elements of first the book Paid Attention, some new thoughts around it maybe not quite a sequel, but some other publications.
But the thing right now I’d love you all to rush to, and look at is called Postcards for Progress. [unintelligible 00:50:10] our newsletter, and our website, we crowd-sourced designs from our designer friends. Every designer who put a design in place got to pick a cause, that they wanted to donate the profits to. You can buy postcards on our website at geniussteals.com/postcards-4-progress. All the profits go to the causes nominated by each designer, and we have donated their fulfillment, and they’ll be coming out in January.
[00:50:39] Adam: That’s awesome, I will include a link to that in the show notes here, because dude that’s so great, what kind of cause is there
[00:50:47] Faris: There’s some- actually, interestingly, the designers have picked quite a lot of smaller causes, it’s just kind of cool. Things that we haven’t heard of were just kind of a nice one. I’ll give you a couple of examples, there’s the Black Hughes project AK BYP-100, which helps train, organize, and mobilize young black activists. There is the Zen Peacemakers three tenets of that cause are [unintelligible 00:51:1] a passionate action, and there are a movement for peaceful, but potent social activism.
We have one for phone credit for refugees, which provides a mobile phone to folks who are asylum seekers and refugees separated from their families by war and conflicts. Yes, they’re all- actually the cause is a really interesting thing, that’s one of the things that they’re not the obvious- we did some fundraising for the Brady campaign last weekend at an event we were hosting, and that was great, but it feels like this smaller causes, more local, more specific, get more emotional resonance from people.
[00:51:48] Adam: Yes, absolutely. Well, that’s an awesome program, and again we’ll link to — Faris, I want to thank you so much for making time, I know you’re usually in an airport or heading to or from one. Thank you for making time for this, I really enjoyed talking.
[00:52:02] Faris: [unintelligible 00:52:03] Thank you for let me geek out. [laughs]
[00:52:05] Adam: Yes, I know, that was fun. As always, guys, you can find Faris at- Faris, what’s your- are you just @Faris on Twitter?
[00:52:11] Faris: Yes, Faris F-A-R-I-S on Twitter, that’s the easiest way to find me.
[00:52:17] Adam: I think he has almost all the Twitter users following him anyway, but if you’re not, you should track them down. If you have thoughts for me, yes you can also hit me up at [unintelligible 00:52:26], or at sandy integrated. Thanks again everybody for listening, please let us know what you think.
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