When my co-author, Max Sexton, and I started researching and writing our recently published book Adapting Science Fiction To Television: Small Screen, Expanded Universe (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015) we kept returning to a central concept: medium specificity. The medium specificity thesis suggests that each medium has distinctive characteristics that distinguish it from other media, and may even provide the basis for their judgement. Adaptation necessarily engages with, and frequently foregrounds, the perceived medium specificities of the source and target media. In adapting works between media, artists must negotiate between fidelity to the source and perceived specificities of the target medium, frequently understood on the basis of their underpinning technology. Yet, as Noel Carroll has argued, these definitions are not inherent to the technology, but rather are historically and culturally constructed. While we may feel there is a common sense definition of what ‘television’, ‘cinema’, or ‘radio’ are, these definitions do not hold up to close scrutiny, and are only valid for particular times, places, and people. As a result adaptations, both in their production and reception, have been a key site for the definition of medium specificity.
With his multiple adaptations and huge popularity, Superman provides a particularly strong case study for examining this phenomenon, especially when thinking about the place animation has played in this process. While he first appeared in comic book form in Action Comics #1, dated June 1938, Superman was almost immediately adapted for other media. By 1940, when Paramount licensed the character for a series of theatrical cartoons to be made by the Fleischer studio in Florida, he had already also appeared in a daily four panel newspaper strip and a hugely popular radio show. In adapting Superman using theatrical animation the Fleischers had to balance a range of competing medium specificities. The comic book source is clearly evident in the graphic montage of the opening titles. Likewise, the popularity of the radio show meant it was this, as much as the comic books, that provided the source for the Fleischers’ films, clearly evident in the use of much of the radio cast to provide voices, especially Bud Collyer as Superman. Yet, as well as retaining a fidelity to its source media, the theatrical cartoons must also embrace their target medium.
This raises the complex question of whether animation is a medium in its own right? Were the Fleischers adapting Superman to cinema, with its dominant definition of big-screen spectacle and photorealism, or animation, best known as an art form of the expression of character through movement, exemplified by the output of the Disney studio? The Fleischer films are marked by this debate, most notably in the stark contrast between the indexical trace of the rotoscoped figures of Lois Lane and Superman, in comparison to the ‘Mad Scientist’ of the first episode. While the former recall live-action Hollywood characters, the latter is more dependent on character animation and whose cartoon bird sidekick invites comparison with the witch in Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). While these conflicts undoubtedly contributed to the long delays and high costs of production, the Fleischers were judged to have managed this balancing act, with a Variety reviewer describing it as “jammed with action and the same implausibilities found in the newspaper strip. Better work on the human characters by Fleischer’s staff makes this an above-the-ordinary entry.”
Following the Fleischers’ theatrical cartoons in the 1940s, Superman would appear in further adaptations over the next twenty years, including a theatrical film serial, the popular George Reeves television show, and even a Broadway-style musical. In each case these can be seen to engage with their chosen medium and negotiate the perceived specificities of them. In making their animated television series The New Adventures of Superman in the 1960s Filmation had again, like the Fleischers, to balance a set of competing medium specificities of their source and target media. The ‘limited’ animation style adopted by Filmation due to economic constraints was also well suited to adapting the simple graphic forms of the comic book; the use again of the voices of the fondly remembered radio show nodded towards television’s heritage as a broadcast medium; meanwhile animation allowed the depiction of spectacular action and science fiction themes that had topical cultural resonance at the height of the space race.
Yet the dominant definitions, and subsequent judgements, of these forms were undergoing considerable change in this period. Filmation’s series would struggle to accommodate these conflicts, despite its huge popularity and financial success. On the one hand it failed to fulfil long standing definitions of animation established by the now defunct Hollywood animation units, encapsulated in Chuck Jones’ dismissal of such shows as ‘illustrated radio’. On the other hand animation was increasingly seen as exclusively for a juvenile audience. As a result the violence in The New Adventures of Superman, along with the other superhero cartoons that followed its popularity, attracted considerable activist and political scrutiny, resulting in such shows being cancelled or tempered with didactic messages. While The New Adventures of Superman can hardly be held up as a masterpiece of animation history, it does provide a bellwether for the changing definitions of animation, and media more generally, in this period. This is evident in the shows themselves, as they use the science fiction genre to explore a range of extensions and amalgamations of cinema, television, radio, and telecommunications, using animation to imagine new media technologies that are only now appearing in the 21st century. Later adaptations of Superman would continue to be subject to the need to accommodate multiple source and target media, with animation now central, not only in the latest animated series, but also in the dominant use of CGI in all mainstream cinema, and the importance of video games in present day franchises.
Given these diverse examples of animation, the question of whether animation can be considered a medium remains, productively, contentious. After all, we watch animation on television or at the cinema, it is dependent upon other media so how can it be a medium of its own? (But, hang on, I watch films on television all the time…). What is clear is that animation shares with more commonly accepted media, such as television and cinema, a set of expectations about subject matter and style, technology, audiences, and institutional contexts that guide our understanding of it, and often form the basis of our judgement of it. While these definitions can often seem natural and inherent, they are actually the product of historically and culturally specific forces. Adaptations, and the study of them, can simply reinforce these (how often do we hear the phrase ‘the book was better than the film’?), but it can also be a tool to understand how those definitions are maintained, and even to start reforming them.
Carroll, Noel. “Medium Specificity Arguments and Self-Consciously Invented Arts: Film, Video and Photography.” Millenium Film Journal, no. 14/15 (1984): 127-153.
Carroll, Noel. “The Specificity of Media in the Arts.” Journal of Aesthetic Education 19, no. 4 (1985): 5-20.
Cook, Malcolm and Sexton, Max Adapting Science Fiction To Television: Small Screen, Expanded Universe (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015)
Malcolm Cook is a lecturer at Middlesex University and Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts London. He was awarded a PhD at Birkbeck, University of London in 2013 for his doctoral thesis “Animating perception: British cartoons from music hall to cinema, 1880 – 1928”, which addressed early British animated cartoons prior to the advent of sound cinema, with a particular focus on the relationship between the moving image and the graphic arts and other pre-cinematic entertainments. He has subsequently published a number of chapters and articles on animation, early cinema, and their intermedial relationships. His book Adapting Science Fiction To Television: Small Screen, Expanded Universe co-authored with Max Sexton for Rowman & Littlefield was published in July 2015. He is currently preparing several book chapters for publication.