Today we are joined with Alisa Perren and Greg Steirer to talk about their book “The American Comic Book and Hollywood!”
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Alice Parren and Greg Steirer – Video Interview
Jeff Haas: [00:00:00] Hello, listeners of spoiler country today on the show, we have two fantastic authors, Elisa, Perrin, and Gregory Stier. How’s it going? Both of you.
Greg Sterier: Great. Thanks for having us.
Jeff Haas: It’s definitely my pleasure. I had I enjoyed reading your book, the American comic book industry in Hollywood, and I was wondering how did he did it?
How did, and when did you guys both fall in love with comic books?
Greg Sterier: Wow. I’ll answer that first. I got into comic books in the nineties when I was in middle school. And that was right about the time or comics. Zoom booming with the death of Superman, the launch of image comics, selling millions of copies.
So that was like back in their heyday in the nineties.
Alice Parren: My entry into comic books was much more recent and it was a function of starting to date, a comic book artist, Kali Hamner in the mid two thousands and learning about the medium and the industry through him [00:01:00] and having him tell me what I needed to read.
Jeff Haas: Kelly Hamner is I’m actually a fan of the show he’s been on. He’s been on the pro. So he’s a great guy. So, Ms. Perry or actually, sorry, Dr. Perrin, cause you do have your PhD you and your bachelor’s in English at the university of California. And you also earn your PhD in radio, TV, and film at the university of Texas at Austin.
What inspired your, your career path and what does a degree in radio TV and film entail?
Alice Parren: Oh, goodness. So yeah, I did my undergrad at UCLA in Los Angeles, and I grew up in Southern California with a family of movie buffs. And so it was always immersed in, interested in the industry. It started out being.
But then sort of expanded when I went to grad school at UT Austin in the mid nineties. And what a degree in radio TV film encompasses. For me it was [00:02:00] basically studying about the history, the industry learning how to analyze sort of form style ideology, things like that. And our students in the program because I ended up later being hired here, ended up Being a blend of wanting to make media and wanting to study media or some combination thereof.
Jeff Haas: That must be interesting to be the teacher at the place in which you were a student. I actually did that when I was a student teacher and taught at the school. I went to high school in what, what was it like for you to have to be the student where you, a teacher, where you previously were our students professor?
Alice Parren: That’s a good question. So,
Jeff Haas: I guess
Alice Parren: the. Distinction for me was I got my PhD in the mid two thousands. And then I worked at a couple other universities. And for some reason, about nine years later, they hired me back at UT. So [00:03:00] it is a little strange and I feel very fortunate or it was, but at the same time I understood the institution and.
Was really invested in it, succeeding and continue to be. So I think that that is helpful. And of course my mentors, many of them were here. Some have now retired, but that’s been nice to sort of be able to pass the torch, I guess, to the next generation and being part
Jeff Haas: of that. That’s great. Your, your mentors embraced you as a, of, as one of them when you became a professor?
Alice Parren: Yeah, for the most part, my, my mentors. Yeah, they were great. And. I, you know, I had terrific people who were instructors for me and trained me as a teacher. And so I feel very fortunate. My main mentor, Tom shots is a film historian and he just retired this year. So that’s a little weird. You know, it’s, it’s fun when you get to be supervising your own students and they watch you and kind of laugh or are bemused [00:04:00] or what
Jeff Haas: have you.
Well, I’ll say when, when I student taught at the high school, which I graduated, some of the teachers who taught me were still there and they looked at me like, oh my God, what are you doing here? Like, Jesus, you shouldn’t be a teacher, but you know, it happened. So
Alice Parren: yeah. When you’re a grad student, you feel like you’re so young and you’ll forever relate.
And just today I taught my first class and I was telling my students my favorite shows and they all said, oh my gosh, my mom
Jeff Haas: loves that. And so I
Alice Parren: transferred them, I guess.
Jeff Haas: So, Dr. Stier, I read that you and your PhD in philosophy media studies and cinema, and I’m an English at the university of Penn
Greg Sterier: Sylvia. Yeah, it was actually an English and they had like a certificate you could get in film studies because at the time there was no, I think there still isn’t a PhD program in cinema studies at Penn.
So interestingly, I mostly studied philosophy and like classics of literature. And when I graduated, I was. [00:05:00] Forget that I want to learn about the industry. So I studied instead like the economics of filmmaking and comic book, authorship and video games, and then eventually wound up back. I teach it to Kunsan college, which is a small liberal arts college.
And I teach in the English department, but I’m also, I’m the person that does the film and media classes. So,
Jeff Haas: so how is it that what you learned in philosophy does that at all help you to, can you apply to what you’re doing right now in English and cinema to the correlate at all?
Greg Sterier: I would say not in any obvious way, but I think.
There is a kind of when you study philosophy, it teaches you to think in a certain kind of rigorous, logical way. So I do think that I bring some of that into how I write and think. I don’t know, but that’s but otherwise, no, there’s no real obvious connection. I don’t
Jeff Haas: think, but I do like that. Cause I always teach with my [00:06:00] students when I teach my classes that everything that you learned.
Can and does work to be integrated in everything else that you learned because in some fashion, some way, whether or not you’re aware of it or not, I really do like the idea that you said not obvious on philosophy, but it probably does help in a way that may not be immediately obvious.
Greg Sterier: Yeah. And I think I might also say maybe at least to agree is that having studied English comic books are a weird kind of medium.
So there are print media. But we often think about them in terms of non-print media, like television film, and video games, toys, all the different things they get turned into. So I do think having some training in English is actually a very useful for thinking about and studying comics.
Jeff Haas: So speaking of which, so you both wrote, wrote your new book is called the American comic book, industry and Hollywood.
So what inspired his creation and how did you guys come to work on it together? Do you. Just Frank beforehand. Was it through the research that you guys kind of bumped into each other? Well,
Alice Parren: I guess we both have our own versions of this, but you can tell [00:07:00] me if, if the lines I had been thinking about doing this project I just finished my first book and I was looking for something right.
Talk about something that hadn’t been written about much that I had access to. And I was really interested in what workers did and sort of the industry structure. And I knew Greg had been doing things related, but not the same. And also that he had a really deep, rich knowledge as a comic book fan and other ways.
And so I reached out to him in a conference. He can tell how long ago it was. It was a while ago, but it took a lot longer than I think. We either of us expected, but in some ways, and we can maybe talk about this later. I think we benefited from it taking a little longer in terms of the timing for it coming
Greg Sterier: out.
Yeah. I think that might’ve even been 2014, maybe when we first started talking about it. And there was a lot of change happening. I mean, there still is, but that was a period where all of [00:08:00] media was beginning to seem like it was going to be re. Invented imagined with new streaming services and sort of the collapse of cable subscribers all of these experiments that were being done by various companies.
So I think one of the reasons it took so long was also just because there was so much happening that we ended up having to consider for understanding what was going on with comics and their relationship to.
Jeff Haas: Now do you guys read it together or is there very specific responsibilities that you guys both have in producing this book?
The one hand more concentrated on one issue that went on a concert or another research writing,
Greg Sterier: we split the book up evenly with each of us taking a chapter and then heavily edited each other’s chapters, giving lots of feedback. I think in Elisa could chime in. Think very similarly about things. And our approach to research is, is very [00:09:00] simpatico.
I think that we also have different things that excite our intellectually, our interests. So I’m kind of interested in economics and I think at least as also interested more than I am in how labor moves and works. So we kind of divvied up the topics based on our interests.
Alice Parren: Yeah, it broke up really smoothly.
Actually. I don’t feel like it was ever a strain. We just sort of figured out the areas that we each wanted to cover. And you know, I think that Greg provided really helpful feedback and made me think about different issues. And we also both interviewed, you know, different pools of people. For the most part.
I think we had overlapped with a couple people maybe that we each interviewed separately.
Jeff Haas: Now, this is a very well-researched book. I counted about 20 pages of bibliography of in back of this book. How long did it take to research this work? And was it difficult to get the information that was necessary for it?
Alice Parren: good question. I mean, [00:10:00] I feel like I had started thinking about this in some form years before we really even talked about it. And I’d started to go to conventions and I’d started to read background and talk to people and sort of that sort of thing in terms of the actual intense process of interviewing people and doing deep dive research for me, that was probably about three intense years of doing.
Greg Sterier: And I would say the same, but I think both of us drew a lot on knowledge. We developed previously for both scholarship and in our life I, my family when I was in high school owned a comic bookstore. So I had a kind of basic knowledge of how distribution worked, for instance, that just came from having.
Helped run that store. So drawing on that information, I guess you could say I started researching when I was in high school. So all of that I think came into play. So, and it meant that both me and Elisa could [00:11:00] point to scholarship. They ended up in that big bibliography that we may not have read for this book, but we’re familiar with and knew that it was informing the way we were thinking and what we had to say about the.
Jeff Haas: Now one thing I really did like about many things I liked about one thing I did like though about the book that you wrote is that a lot of that, some of the discussion Lisa quite a bit of the chapters are written about comic books and the Chromebook writers and artists being accepted by Hollywood as a legitimate art form.
Now, one thing I, I was thinking about as I was reading that was, I kind of felt that, or have your opinion on it is the acceptance of Hollywood. Partly due to academics, suddenly respecting and acknowledging legit, how legitimate, complex art as an art form. And where do you think the role of academics is in helping calm books become more accepted?
Alice Parren: Greg is probably more immersed in comics study his scholarship than I am, but I do. I think that. It’s on the fringes, [00:12:00] but I wouldn’t necessarily see it as that crucial. Ultimately, Greg, I dunno what you
Greg Sterier: would say. I would agree. I think that unfortunately, academics don’t have all that much influence at least film and media academics in any
experience for a few years, I was part of a research team working with Warner brothers as they were exploring various digital. Things experiments. And they. It was difficult working with them also because academics timelines are so slow compared to people that work in Hollywood or that work in comics where things move so quickly.
So a book that takes nine years to write with. And the kind of decision-making processes that Hollywood or tech people, we interviewed some tech people for our book and comic book people. Do so I, I sadly think we haven’t, the academics haven’t had
Jeff Haas: much influence, I will say, I think it was maybe [00:13:00] 10 or 12 years ago when I first came across a professor who was, who had a.
In comic books. I was doing an interview for a project. Fanboy came in the name of the professor anymore, bows out of full out of Florida, but they had a major in comic books. I mean, when your experiences with conflict as a academic subject older than that, or do you think that’s about the time when it started getting taken more seriously?
Greg Sterier: I’ve actually written about this. I’m going to jump it, definitely search it up.
Alice Parren: You’re better to talk about
Greg Sterier: this. I looked a little at the history of comic studies and it really dates to around 2010 is kind of where we see this big takeoff in publications, journals books from academic publishing houses and classes.
So there were so scattered. Classes and professors and publications before that going back really to the nineties, but around 2010, for some reason is where we get this turning point. And so even if academics, maybe haven’t made that much of a difference in the [00:14:00] industries, there is this big growth and it’s appreciation as a cultural form, I think among like museums, librarians, and, and our students who actually also come in themselves more excited about it, at least.
So would you agree.
Alice Parren: Oh, definitely. I certainly think there’s a lot more enthusiasm post MCO, generally speaking. And the entry points, of course, being through film and TV a lot, I think for our
Jeff Haas: students. So my MC parents wasn’t that much different than apparently realities. That’s kind of nice to hear once in a while.
So, another thing I found very interesting in, in reading, reading your book, Is the interviews that you guys had with people in the industry. Now, some of the artists are very clear who they are. You mentioned their names, some of them refer to as the artist or someone who’s unnamed, inter being interviewed into a name interviewee.
Did you find that there were certain interviewers who are either uncomfortable being named or had some fears about what their comments were going to cause within the industry where, you know, saying why were some left or left [00:15:00] anonymous?
Alice Parren: That’s a good question. So for me typically the people that were for major companies.
Would either give information on background or they didn’t want, you know, the bigger the company, oftentimes the more the anxiety. So the executive types in particular were very reticent to go on the record. And oftentimes artists and writers, I think creative people generally would be more open to it, but it didn’t necessarily always.
Matter in terms of what we were saying for the larger story. So sometimes if, I think oftentimes our identifications of people were dependent on if their personal identity mattered for the story we felt we wanted to tell, or if it was more about a sort of larger example that we were trying to
Jeff Haas: provide.
Greg Sterier: I just was going to say, I might add [00:16:00] that for comic book creators. They work on contract most of them. So there also is a desire not to offend potential employers, even if they don’t have some of them even may have signed a nondisclosure agreements, which prevent them from legally going. I’m not even supposed to go off the record, but talking about things.
So I do think that there were a few instances, at least where it just would have been safer for the people we’re interviewing to not have their names be named.
Jeff Haas: So do you think that was primarily during the discussions of how of business, how they were getting paid? Do you think it was more about how or the, how the companies are functioning at the administrative levels?
Greg Sterier: Both of those. Yeah.
Alice Parren: I mean, certainly what I found fascinating was there a certain executives that I talked to that. Even if they knew that I wouldn’t identify them, we’re very careful because they wanted to be in creatives too. But when you got to talking [00:17:00] about their history and their trajectory and their personal experiences, it often opened up, and that was sort of what opened the door for a lot of the discussion about like the cultural experiences and the cultural status and the sort of larger positioning that comes in that first chapter of the history.
Jeff Haas: So one thing I found kind of interesting was because of the type of book, this is once again, a very well research academic work, is it problematic to site people who are not giving their names? And how do you work around that?
Greg Sterier: Well, actually to do this kind of research when you’re interacting with human beings most all institutions require you to go through this formal process with something called an institutional review board, to make sure that the work you’re doing with the human beings won’t potentially cause them.
And so in fact, anonymizing, the results is something that institutional review boards often require. So as to protect the human subjects that you’re interacting with. So [00:18:00] if we had, if we had wanted to write a book, we were like, we are going to name all the names. We’re going to publish what people said explicitly.
I’m not even sure we would have gotten approval from our institutions to write the. And it’s possible. People would not have agreed to talk with us. So unfortunately it’s kind of a necessity.
Jeff Haas: Now another thing. I was amazed with your book. And I was so incredibly wrong with my prior information before I read your book.
And I was supposed to, it was one of those things where I kind of, as I was reading for a little while, so my ground’s like, no, that doesn’t make any sense of that. I was like, okay, no, I’m just wrong. Was he section on. And I was so wrong and I said, I figured synergy is, is brilliant. I got w you know, I feel like that definitely seems something that makes sense.
And I’m reading your book. I’m like, oh God, I am so incredibly wrong. Again, a bigger collaborate conglomerates don’t work at all. And were you surprised in the research on how flawed of a concept’s energy turned out to be? [00:19:00] And can you also, I’m sorry, I’m going to, for first, for my. Can you please explain first what synergy means for your book and then go into expansion because they might not.
Greg Sterier: Sarah. And I’m really thanks for sharing that with, with us. I think that we’re both excited to hear that you have that experience reading the chapter synergy is the idea that when one company buys another company that is somehow related to it, like. A film company buys a comic book company, then magically they work together and produce better things and make more money rather than if they were working through licensing agreements as separate companies.
And I think that by the time we sat down to write the book based on our own experiences we’d already known that synergy doesn’t really work the way that people claim it does. Like I said, I. Did some work with Warner brothers and that’s that company in particular has a very siloed, the different divisions that do not speak with each other.
So we’d be talking [00:20:00] to, for instance, like the video game company and say, what is DC comics think about this? And they’d be like, oh, we don’t talk with them there. Why would we do that? So I think part of it. This basic, our own experiences. We realized that was an important story to tell because there’s a kind of idea, especially amongst comic fans.
I think that this synergy is this powerful force directing how media has made. I don’t know if Alisa, you wanted to add anything to that.
Alice Parren: No, I think it’s true. I mean, one of the things we tried to do was, you know, you have a chapter where you sort of lay it out conceptually and give like, sort of deem mythologizing examples with Disney and Marvel, which are like the classic cases that everyone assumes.
And then we follow that with sort of a grounding of the Warner brothers case, which as you walk through their history and you see each moment in a more chronological way, as Greg said, you sort of discover it’s like a constant struggle. Any part connect with the other parts for various
Greg Sterier: reasons. But I will say that that’s also [00:21:00] sometimes part of Warner brothers magic.
So you get like the Christopher Nolan, Batman films, for instance, come out of that, that part way of working that’s distinctly Warner brothers, keeping each project kind of separate and working by. At least that’s how it used to work at Warner
Jeff Haas: brothers. And I think as Dr. Perrin pointed out most of us I think did look at Disney as the perfect example of the mega Cullum, conglomerate buying up an industry and thinking this is must be great for everything.
What do you think the impact of the combo industry has been because of this confusion on the benefits of center? Big question.
Greg Sterier: I do think. Comic book readers and particular fans expect there to be more synergy than there is. I’m a big comic book reader. I went today’s Wednesday comic books came out. I went to the comic book store and got them. It’s kind of shocking how little in common, the comics that are published even by Marvel and DC have [00:22:00] with.
The TV, the film, those kinds of things. So, I think that there’s this desire and expectation that the link up more, but it’s just really difficult to do that if you want. And it’s not always clear what the financial benefits are from doing it. So I’d say that maybe fan expectations have been impacted by this Elisa.
There are other things you can think of.
Alice Parren: No, I mean, I think that that, that is spot on. I also think that. The continuous thinking on the industry, inclinations towards synergy, sort of Abdin flowed over time. And I think there’s been a lot of discussion in some quarters in terms of the move to streaming and the streamlining of companies and divisions that somehow things will magically now function in a different way.
I guess to be D TBD.
Jeff Haas: I mean, I think the more, the most famous example that the combo fans believed is with fantastic four and [00:23:00] X-Men and it does sound like after kind of reading your book, that that was myth, more myth than
Greg Sterier: reality. I think so. I mean, it’s just. They don’t, they’re not working well enough instinct to even do that if they wanted to.
And I think if you work for any big organization, you see that to work that way. It was so demanding to have people across divisions work in sync like that. It’s just really challenging. And the truth is with something like Marvel and fantastic. It was never, hasn’t been a successful title in quite a long time.
And on top of that, I mean, we often hear synergy blame for bad editorial decisions, but marvels had creatives complaining about editorial intervention for decades since the eighties and seventies actually. So it’s really in some ways, just more. More of the same. But now we can blame synergy instead of Jim shooter or,
Jeff Haas: well, one thing I found also at least one of your opinions on obviously calm [00:24:00] books, despite some group’s thoughts, they, the sales have been increasing steadily flowed for more or less 10 years, about one or 2%.
It feels like per year, But obviously the industry, the movie industry for con for combo based superheroes heads skyrocket to being a massive blockbuster. Are you surprised that combo haven’t been able to take better advantage of their increased of visibility? It’s
Alice Parren: that’s one of those perpetual issues that slash questions that there would be this expectation that.
The comics sales would be significantly elevated, much more than they are because of the popularity of them as film and TV shows. And I mean, certainly there’s a consistent rise in comics, but I, I there’ve been studies that have come out that have basically indicated the lack of. Any direct correspondence that people aren’t necessarily being driven from one to the other in large numbers.
And I think [00:25:00] part of that has to do with the sense of where do I start or the impenetrability of a lot of comics for novices especially the sort of Marvel and DC comics, right? So entering into like select create our own comics is a certainly easier. Venture to do in many instances, I don’t know.
Greg Sterier: what would you say? Yeah, I would agree. I mean, as someone that I took maybe a couple of years off from reading comics weekly, like Marvel is impenetrable what’s I don’t know if Jeff, if you read X-Men, but like following what’s happening, it’s impossible to enter into X-Men at the moment. It’s so complicated.
And so there’s a strange way that the publishers, at least Marvel and DC, maybe it’s their fault that they really haven’t. Tried to capitalize on the kind of general audience that has been opened up by Hollywood. I think that’s probably too simple, an explanation, but it is striking that comics have in some ways become only more complicated in the last three or four years [00:26:00] than maybe we would expect them to be,
Jeff Haas: oh, sorry.
Do you think that the movie audience that goes beyond the combo that reaches beyond it, do you think. They inherently would be comic book fans potentially. Or do you think there’s just an audience of combo fans and audience that just isn’t gonna go to the comic store to buy comic books?
Alice Parren: I mean, that’s a tough one.
I don’t know that, you know, I would have to do more studies personally and be in that realm to be able to say with confidence, but I do think that. There’s certainly a recognition from the people I’ve talked about, talk to in the comics industry, that they cannot continue to rely on the same group of readers that have been their core base.
And they have to find, you know, it’s an aging demographic group that is very specific and. That is not sustainable in the longterm. And so certainly there are massive efforts, especially to, to go for the Y a readership and with [00:27:00] programming or movies that cater to them. I don’t know. I mean, I’d love to see data on the correlation between that, but I certainly think that young women in particular are a huge entry point within or across different forms.
But I don’t know how they connect per se.
Greg Sterier: Yeah, I would add to that, that it’s been striking what comics, even in this past year, despite that complexity, the main publishers have been doing with trying to attract different audiences people of color pride day was recently. And all of the, it was amazing to see all of these Marvel and DC pride covers, for instance.
I think one of the big challenges though, is that Marvel comics. Offensive compared to other media, that price point is really high. So I think that may be one of the things that has kept them from growing in the same way. I mean, TV has grown and film partly because streaming sites are super cheap compared to that.
Sometimes you can’t even buy one comic book for the cost of. Hulu membership with ads, for instance. So it’s kind of amazing how expensive comics are compared to other media.
Jeff Haas: So I’m gonna ask one [00:28:00] last question because zoom is slowly telling me goodbye. So, my final question is going to be once again, when you’re, you’re writing this book and you’re researching this book, you’re, you’re reading about something that’s very much a living organism that’s continually moving and evolving as you’re writing it and things.
At what point did you feel that this moment in time now is the time to stop the book and get ready for release?
Alice Parren: That’s a good question. I think it’s, you know, a practical one, which is the manuscript is due. So you have to figure out what the points or whatever do. And the reality of, I tend to try to think of it as everything is.
Within a historical context, even in the present. And so what seemed to be breaks or markers, and it seemed pretty clear, like strikingly clear as we were finishing, like when we were finishing the actual manuscript. You know, the MCU end game had just come out and I think at and T had just purchased time Warner.
So there are all these sorts of [00:29:00] corporate machinations that were notable as one example. And then when we were writing the conclusion, COVID. And so that seemed like a particularly apt moment, not to mention the streaming wars sort of really kicking off with Disney plus and that sort of thing. So it made sense.
I mean, I think that there is an, as you said, an ongoing story that can be told, but in some ways I think that we’re fortunate that there is a clear break where others can come in or maybe we’ll come in later and update or reframe in a new way. Greg,
Greg Sterier: what would you say? Yeah, I’d say I echo exactly what you said.
I mean, there, just since COVID, there’s also been changes in how distribution works in comics. So I think it COVID has changed the way media seems to be working. And I don’t think it’s going to go backwards. So I think like Alisa said, it turned out to be a very it’s. I don’t like to use the word for, to at estimate anything about COVID, but it did seem a logical stopping point.[00:30:00]
Jeff Haas: possibly there’ll be a volume, two covering the recent changes in the industry, such as the distribution and whatnot, maybe in the future.
Greg Sterier: I’m going to say I, I would like to see one and I think so. But I don’t, I don’t want to speak for Lisa.
Alice Parren: I think that there was a lot for me and I, I think for Greg builds that we wanted to cover that we couldn’t because we hit our page limit and we covered the main things that we felt were.
Relevant to what we researched, but also just what’s happening and continuing to happen. Of course.
Jeff Haas: I want to thank you guys, both for talking with me. It was a great pleasure. I thought your book was absolutely fascinating and it was glad to get more information from you guys just now in the interview. So thank
Greg Sterier: you so much. Thank you so much. And thanks for having us on and to talk, talking with
Alice Parren: us.
Yeah. Thanks for such thoughtful questions and attentiveness to our
Jeff Haas: writing. That was like, that was definitely my pleasure. I was gonna to do a deep dive into that book, [00:31:00] so thank you so much, guys.
Greg Sterier: Thanks. Have a good night.