I went to see Transformers in an enormous Montreal cinema when it debuted in 2007. Although I left the theater with little to say about the movie itself, my brain was still on fire from a teaser trailer that ran before it. Bad Robot, J. J. Abrams’ production company, crafted the perfect ad, one so mysterious that it drove the viewer to seek out information rather than hopefully remember the movie when it came out several months later. The trailer lacked even a title, so the curious could only google the movie’s release date and find the equally mysterious (now defunct) 1-18-08.com. What followed for me, then 16 years old, was miraculous. This apparent monster movie, later titled Cloverfield, had an entire alternate reality game (ARG) that formed a community of nerds in deerstalker hats. They investigated clues and dissected pictures pixel by pixel to unravel the mystery, and I followed the process meticulously.
The ARG felt like a brand new media experience. It consisted of in-universe (i.e. diegetic) websites, or sites that were presented as though they existed in the world of the film. Through fake brand websites and characters’ MySpace profiles, Bad Robot blurred the line between fiction and reality, altering my conception of what it meant to be a movie in the process. After all, the experience of the ARG was unnecessary for understanding or enjoying Cloverfield, but my experience differed from my friends who had at most a passing interest. It wasn’t better or more complete, but it was different. My memories of that experience returned eight years later when another mysterious trailer surfaced. I saw the title and was transported back to my years as an awkward, somewhat asocial teenager. 10 Cloverfield Lane. When a subreddit,1 /r/10CloverfieldLane, appeared within hours, I wasn’t surprised. For the next three months, I followed the impressive investigative work of this community, which consisted of those who partook in the ARG eight years prior as well as excited new contributors. The work put into investigating leads and theories was nonstop, a modern hobby for amateur cryptanalysts.
But this time around, something about the experience felt familiar—not to the one I had eight years ago, but to the experiences of moviegoers and, surprisingly enough, comic strip readers from over a century ago. Bad Robot’s “Cloververse” ARG is not a brand new form of interaction between viewer and film at all. Instead, it’s a revival of the relationship that filmmakers explored and utilized in the early 1900s, one that faded less so due to film’s “natural” growth into a narrative-driven, passive medium, but rather as a result of decades of corporate influence. Most interestingly, though, before this transition filmmakers looked to a medium that has provided substantial fodder for modern film studios: comic books.2 In this sense, 10 Cloverfield Lane—through the Cloververse, defined here as the films and the ARG that ties them together—epitomizes the comic book movie because it taps into the way film and comics interacted at their inceptions.
At first, those inceptions sound like two distinct developments from two mostly distinct time periods. Modern comic book histories tend to start with or focus on the release of Action Comics #1 in 1938, which debuted Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s Superman and set off a superhero craze that has seen highs and lows but continues to this day. Film, meanwhile, tends to start in 1895 with the premiere of the Lumière brothers’ Workers Leaving The Lumière Factory in Lyon. At least in my film classes and readings, this event is often paired with the birth of narrative-driven movies in 1902 via Georges Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon. Yet, the 1890s also saw the rise of American comic strips in humor magazines. When the movement from serial comic strips to comic books is set against the movement from serial short films to narrative features, one finds an ongoing conversation between the two burgeoning media over several decades. This multifaceted history is the subject of Jared Gardner’s Projections: Comics and the History of Twenty-First-Century Storytelling, which provides much of the historical information discussed here and is an excellent resource for readers interested in the history of either medium.
At first glance, the connections in those early years are similar to those in the present-day, with the Marvel Cinematic Universe and DC Extended Universe dominating blockbuster cinema. Cartoonists became animators or starred in/produced adaptations of comic strips, as was the case for James Stuart Blackton. The New York World cartoonist starred in and produced Hooligan Assists the Magician (1900), one of many adaptations of Frederick Burr Opper’s contemporary comic strip Happy Hooligan (Gardner 19). Edwin S. Porter, generally considered the director that brought film out of its “primitive” early years to its more classical narrative form, also adapted several comic strips (Gardner 21). Today, comic book properties make up nearly half of this decade’s top 10 box office hits, and the list of comic book creators or filmmakers that have crossed over includes big names like Frank Miller, Joss Whedon, Kevin Smith, and many more.
But more interestingly, early filmmakers looked at the way comic books were created and consumed to inform their productions. Rather than primitive directors who fumbled with storytelling before turning to traditional narrative patterns of the stage and the novel—and rather than audiences who apocryphally ran from the theater as the Lumières’ train rushed toward the screen in 1896 (Loiperdinger & Elzer)—there was simply a different understanding of what the medium was and could be. Audiences, for example, probably understood the principles of how film worked better than most modern audiences due to consumer goods like zoetropes, which mimicked motion through light and series of images (Gardner 4; see the video below for an example from Ancient Optics). Filmmakers knew this as well, so they naturally looked at comic books, where stories were also told as series of images. This focus on the seriality of images is emphasized by the way movies were perceived as “series of pictures” and “series of scenes” in those formative decades (Gardner 30). Audiences and filmmakers alike understood this.
Bad Robot, it appears, understands this as well. Everything about the Cloververse is fragmented and serialized in a way that reflects the early understanding between the media. [By the way, this is your SPOILER signpost for 10 Cloverfield Lane.] First of all, there’s the way Cloverfield and 10 Cloverfield Lane are connected: the latter is not a direct sequel, and appears to take place in a separate world where the events of the first film did not occur. Yet the films are connected in a different manner, as stated by Abrams in an interview: “the spirit of it, the genre of it, the heart of it, the fear factor, the comedy factor, the weirdness factor — there were so many elements that felt like the DNA of this story were of the same place that Cloverfield was born out of.” Rather than a continuous narrative, Abrams focuses on repeated structures and ideas through which a type of movie appears. This creative impulse strongly resembles the mode of storytelling seen in early comic strips and film adaptations like the aforementioned Happy Hooligan: as Gardner describes, the ongoing newspaper strip did not have a continuous narrative, but rather used repeated structures to allow themes to arise through the repetition (14). So, for example, the eponymous Happy’s irreverent personality arises through his actions in and reactions to repetitive situations, showing that individuality can still arise despite anxieties about the modern world. [And here’s an END SPOILER signpost].
The other—and more compelling—connection between the Cloververse and the early relationship between comic books and histories requires some further context, which can be explained by asking a question that many of you might be thinking: why now? Why are filmmakers turning to comic books again after growing apart almost a century ago? To answer this question in its totality requires a lot of history, but Michael Kammen provides a concise model of American cultural history that will suffice for this discussion. The three somewhat loose stages of cultural creation and consumption are outlined as follows:
- Popular culture from 1885 to 1935, which privileged participation and interaction between audiences and creators;
- Proto-mass culture, or the transition from popular culture to mass culture;
- Mass culture, beginning in the 1960s and focusing on more passive forms of cultural consumption. (75–100)
Although this discussion has so far focused on the nature of film and comics, Kammen’s model contextualizes those media as part of a larger cultural shift, one that focuses on participation and interaction.3 By 1935, there is movement away from these qualities. In terms of film history, this movement is usually considered to be a natural growth of the medium toward classical narrative traditions from literature and drama, but a closer look reveals a pragmatic approach by film studios rooted in the high production and distribution costs, and not the artistic desires of filmmakers and audiences.4 Over this same time period, comic strips became increasingly interactive. Readers would write in ideas, theories, and suggestions to newspapers that published comic strips like Bud Fisher’s A. Mutt in the 1910s and Ed Wheelan’s Minute Movies in the 1920s. Fisher and Wheelan would incorporate audience suggestions and feedback into the strips (Gardner 61), which might surprise modern readers who experienced or have heard legends of 1989’s Batman: A Death in the Family, where readers called a 900 number to vote on whether Jason Todd, the second Robin, would live or die.
Comic books gravitated away from this level of interactivity, however, perhaps due to the medium’s shift from strips in newspapers (which were localized to at least a city) to nationally published booklets, reflecting a larger cultural movement that Jean-Paul Gabilliet describes as “the incipient erosion of local identity and participatory cultural practices” (xviii). So, to go back a few paragraphs and restate the question, why are creators like Bad Robot just now going back to comic books? Gardner has a fitting answer for both: the developments in home video technology and, of course, the internet (Gardner 182; 149). DVD players in particular revolutionized the way audiences interact with film. Viewers no longer experienced a movie as an uncontrollable, continuous sequence of images played in a theater. Rather, they could pause, rewind, play in slow motion, and otherwise fragment the viewing experience. Films are once again being understood as a series of images, just as they were by the technologically literate audiences of the 1890s. Further, the line between creator and consumer has been obliterated by the internet, which allows for serialized media via webcomics and YouTube channels, as well as instant communication between artist and audience through websites like Twitter. The internet has made participation and interaction not just viable, but inseparable from the movie-going and comic-reading experiences. To see this, one need only consider the internet sleuths that find hints and details in the latest Marvel or DC movie trailer, or the eruptions that occur against changes/perceived changes. The technological advancements and economic interests of the early 20th century might have caused or influenced the shift from popular culture to mass culture, but those of the early 21st century appear to have worked against it.
In terms of how audiences consume film, the ARG capitalizes on quick-forming communities like /r/10CloverfieldLane that arise from shared interests in the digital age. Further, by revealing hints or clues about the film in trailers, Bad Robot utilizes the increasing fragmentation of film. For example, after the first trailer came out, redditor Ganonthegreat used context clues to construct a theoretical timeline of the scenes as they might occur in the actual film—and, of course, the community discussed it in even greater detail. Or, look at cryptidman117’s dissection of one trailer that was sent to movie theaters. The community discovered that each theater chain received a copy of the trailer that differed by one frame. When the users realized each frame had a number, they found out how to arrange the numbers such that they formed a set of coordinates located near where the film takes place. When user MugensKeeper drove to the coordinates, he found a “dead drop” by Howard Stambler, one of the main characters in 10 Cloverfield Lane played by John Goodman. The drop included the missing pieces from a puzzle that the characters cannot finish in the film, as well as a USB drive containing audio of possible alien contact during a satellite launch mission.
The participation and interaction between the community and the text,5 which here consists of the entire Cloververse, reflects how creators interacted with audiences in the popular culture era as defined by Kammen. It captures how the internet has fundamentally changed how audiences experience a film, just as nickelodeon hopping or film exhibitor curation would change the way a viewer experienced, say, Hooligan Assists the Magician. After all, what does it mean to have experienced the first Cloverfield? Does it mean seeing the 85 minute film that ran in theaters? Does it mean seeing the movie and knowing what information is relayed in the ARG? Or does it require having experienced the ARG firsthand? Can that experience be replicated by the Blu-Ray’s “Special Investigation Mode,” which incorporates much of the information from the ARG into an interactive viewing of the film? All of these experiences are valid but also different, which emphasizes the relationship to the viewer in a way that mainstream cinema has not privileged for decades.
Another natural question to ask is, why these movies? Why has Bad Robot captured this impulse for the Cloverfield titles more than Marvel or DC? Well, it’s part and parcel of what these movies wish to accomplish. First of all, in that quote from Abrams about the shared “DNA” between Cloverfield and 10 Cloverfield Lane, he discusses the genre, alluding to how they both reinvent classic pulp stories like the Twilight Zone potboiler, or the alien invasion, or the giant monster attack. These genres have origins in pulp media, like EC Comics’ Tales from the Crypt in the 1950s, or Alex Raymond’s comic strip Flash Gordon in the 1930s, or fantasy/horror fiction magazine Weird Tales in the 1920s. Each of these relied on audience engagement, including fan letters and a sense of community separate from the mainstream. So, in a sense, the genre-twisting Cloververse need only look at its antecedents to see the necessity of audience interaction and participation. And, of course, there’s a slightly cynical answer: early filmmakers were encouraged to utilize cliffhangers to ensure audiences and profits, and Abrams is a master of this kind of advertising-through-intrigue.
Even more cynically, there’s the economic reality that anthologies, or “cinematic universes,” are massively popular right now. Just as production and distribution costs were a concern in 1907, they’re a concern now, and the ability to reuse assets and ensure returning audiences is something any film studio would cherish. Thus, by connecting the separate worlds of Cloverfield and 10 Cloverfield Lane through the ARG, Bad Robot can ensure returned customers. However, there’s a kinder reading to the filmmakers’ intentions, which is that the purpose is thematic. Primary to this reading is how the ARG connects the worlds: the constant in both films is megacorporation Tagruato, a mining company with several subsidiaries. [Here are some more SPOILERS.] The events of Cloverfield are caused by the company pretending to drill for oil off the Atlantic Coast of the United States. As one of the ARG websites reveals, the company has ulterior motives, possibly harvesting a narcotic-like ingredient called “seabed’s nectar” that they put in a drink and sell through their subsidiary Slusho!—the company that Rob is going to Japan to work for in Cloverfield. The events of 10 Cloverfield Lane were at least anticipated by the government and Tagruato’s technology development subsidiary, Bold Futura, where Howard received Tagruato’s Employee of the Month award.6 [Here is the END SPOILERS tag.] By connecting these tragedies through the abuses and neglect of a single corporation, a theme arises that neither film on its own could produce. This resembles the way strips like Happy Hooligan let themes develop using repeated structures despite not having a continuous narrative.
Whatever the reason may be, and there are certainly more reasons to discuss due to the density of the Cloververse,7 Bad Robot has tapped into a cultural shift with old roots. The irony is that it has done so by tapping into a relationship between film and comic books that the litany of modern superhero films have failed to fully capture. While 10 Cloverfield Lane is a substantial text all on its own, its inclusion in the Cloververse places it in a massive cultural context in which its impact could be even greater. If other filmmakers look at 10 Cloverfield Lane and see the way it utilizes the ever-changing face of film in response to home video technology and the internet, then they might push the medium away from what Seldes described as a “bogus art” and back into an interactive, non-traditional mode of storytelling that captures the ever-changing ways that audiences experience and interact with the culture they consume. In this light, 10 Cloverfield Lane has the potential to be a movie that both harkens back to the early days of the medium’s pulp inspirations, and places itself on the cutting edge of art’s modern age transformation. Either way, the next film to enter the Cloververse will likely excite, engage, and challenge audiences just as its predecessors have, and perhaps reunite two great artistic media to capture their revolutionary storytelling potentials.
1. A subreddit is a subforum—i.e. a discussion board where users can post and comment on anything within a certain subject—on the website reddit, which hosts nearly 800,000 such communities with as few as 0 subscribers and as many as 10 million.
2. I use “comic books” and “comics” in the general sense here, referring to graphic sequential narrative. While many circles use “comic book” to refer specifically to those little stapled booklets of graphic narratives, or “comics” for comic strips, the general usage better fits the non-technical nature of this article.
3. The movement toward participation and interactivity can at least in part be attributed to the advent of penny press papers in the 1830s, increased free time, and expanded audiences due to improved transportation and technology (Gabilliet xviii).
4. Gardner outlines the counter-narrative to film’s “natural” growth into classical narrative traditions quite thoroughly, but here is a short version. By 1907, there was a “serial craze” among filmgoers to the extent that Harper’s Weekly published an article about “nickelodeon theatre-parties,” where groups would go from theater to theater as they tailored the night’s entertainment (qtd. in Gardner 30). Film exhibitors, likewise, enjoyed a “remix culture” where they could curate the evening program by mixing and matching short films. However, this resulted in inconsistent audiences and styles, which made dreams of a factory line-style production model difficult to achieve. Whereas new settings and characters cost little to create in a comic strip, the expenses add up quickly for film producers. At first, producers would create multi-reel films, meaning more could be shot using the same resources. The producers would get around exhibitor bans on multi-reel films by releasing them as serials one week apart, resembling the piecemeal release of novels like Charles Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers (Gardner 31–2).
Around 1912, single-reel movies were still popular and dominant, such that many exhibitors did not embrace multi-reel movies until producers led a kind of propaganda campaign; as Gardner explains, they promised exhibitors “Broadway ticket prices, five-week engagements, and, perhaps most powerfully, [the transformation of] nickelodeons into ‘legitimate’ theaters” (32). This did not account for audiences who might grow bored and leave while exhibitors changed the film reel running on their lone projector, so filmmakers used a technique straight out of comic serials: each reel would end with a cliffhanger to keep the audience engaged. The shift to ongoing narratives was thus not a natural change at all, but rather one forced onto the medium due to economic interests. A contemporary voice that pointed out this forced transition is Gilbert Seldes, who wrote an open letter in 1924, which Gardner describes as a piece directed at “movie ‘magnates'” that criticizes the industry’s reshaping of film into a “bogus art” (29). To Seldes, film was an art when it experimented with light and movement, the medium’s central tenets, rather than when it attempted to ape theater and novels.
5. In this context, “text” can mean any work or body of work. It’s useful largely due to its fluidity. For example, one might discuss 2008’s The Dark Knight as a text, or discuss Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy as a text. Using the same word emphasizes that each can be viewed and discussed as a single, if fragmented, item. Further, “text” isn’t constricted by historical conceptions of what defines a piece of art. That’s important for this article, because it captures how popular conceptions of what it means to experience a movie can change, as in the case of the Cloververse.
6. I admit that this interpretation is speculative at this point. However, considering Abrams’ view on how the movies are connected, it seems possible. If the ARG for the next Cloverfield film focuses on one of the other subsidiaries, then that would add to this reading and be an interesting area for further discussion of the franchise.
7. If you want to see just how much of the Cloververse occurs outside of the films, check out Cloverpedia, which describes itself as a “collaborative encyclopedia” of the events, characters, and websites of the Cloververse.
- Gabilliet, Jean-Paul. Of Comics and Men: A Cultural History of American Comic Books. Trans. Bart Beaty and Nick Nguyen. Jackson, MS: UP of Mississippi, 2009. Print.
- Gardner, Jared. Projections: Comics and the History of Twenty-First-Century Storytelling. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 2012. Print. Post*45.
- Kammen, Michael. American Culture, American Tastes: Social Change and the 20th Century. New York: Knopf, 1999. Print.
- Loiperdinger, Martin, and Bernd Elzer. “Lumiere’s Arrival of the Train: Cinema’s Founding Myth.” The Moving Image 4.1 (2004): 89-118. Web.