How future nonfict storytelling emerges from Spiderman into the Spider-verse

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Design Jake Palmer

A web of Spidey comic characters brilliantly showing the way for non-fictional storytellers in the future? Are you serious? That my friends is how I should have started to make a case for not putting all our faith in one form, such as classical journalism. But Into the Spider-Verse had yet to be made.

It starts a decade and a half ago with me being interviewed for a dream job. Dotcoms are bursting, multimedia is a fancible term, and TV news journalism scales have fallen from my eyes. I’m facing a panel of five and the conversation’s not entirely going my way. It ends, however at Apple’s flagship store and a Tony Robbins style presentation Apple brand as “Hurricane.

Here goes. Sitting opposite me is an ex-BBC chief. He‘s not seeing it. Mid-flow I find myself thinking well that’s it then? Isn’t learning supposed to be progressive? Disruptive? Philosophical? I’m up to the last round for this innovation position at a cool university in London.

Firstly, I say to him as the panel look on, you don’t need to be a trained journalist to get and write great stories. I mean look at the spectrum of novelists, bloggers, podcasters, and video makers who rack up strong views and attract critical feedback — scores of them have never gone near a journalism textbook but adhere to truth telling. And I could cite a number of journos who’ve learned the craft of storytelling by sheer mimicry.

Secondly, these categories we’re presented with: docs, news, journalism, features, essays, they’re all artificial constructs. Their histories are shaped by answers to specific problems, but as societies and cultures change, they’re found wanting. Take documentary. It was cinema’s so called obsession with surface aesthetics in the 1920s that gave documentary an in. That’s according to one of the most prominent scholars on the form Bill Nichols. Then, as the pattern with media unfurls privilege took over.

Then, I really shoot myself further in the foot. I think all students should learn Flash, After Effects and HTML/CSS. That pretty much did it. “What’s Flash and After Effects?” he asked.

I didn’t get the job.

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Out there. Out there is a universe of stories. It’s like Spider-man Into the Spider-Verse — this new conceptual movie that piques boy-hood wet dreams. I’m reliving my mum’s threatening remarks to bin all my comics because like an obsessive screenager I couldn’t peel myself away from the panels.

In Into the Spider-Verse several spider superheroes from different dimensions, with a deft nod to diversity, come to occupy a single collapsed continuum in screen space and time. Really! Einstein deserved a cameo. No one by themselves is enough to fight evil. Each combine to bring something unique to the party to rid the world of villains.

In our analogous real 21st century story-verse where the web of conceit, deception and corruption entangles the highest offices of government, our real characters bear names like: journalism, documentaries, VR/AR, cinema, photo essays, code, podcasts. Unlike the analogue days where one character reigned supreme, in today’s post truth era no story-verser is singularly able.

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Times, culture, philosophies and technology have changed. Authors like Ed Madison in Reimagining Journalism in a Post-Truth World see answers beyond normative journalism.

Journalism is an interesting character. At best in trying to tell a story it often thinks itself the most adept of its friends at solving societies’ ills. Journalism, however is easily foiled. It has these unering habits that villains see coming a mile off. Tell journalism nonsensical facts and so long as you’re powerful they’ll get reported particularly if it equates to divide and rule. Provide two uneven camps of views and journalism does this false equivalence thing — giving equal weight. Stereotypes? Don’t get me started.

Docs, another favourite, has overcome an identity crisis, but only recently. It went out of favour in the 1970s after largely being abandoned by cinema theatres and television came to its rescue. Television then turned doc into this unrecognisable character in a suit. Today it’s back, spruced up showing at festivals, but look long enough and docs could take a leaf out of Spiderman’s representation.

VR’s time travel puts it in a quandary. It’s 21st tech shouting loud about it’s new vision which include its lack of fixed points or staging. However, it’s been rather shy at acknowledging that its precursors have constrained to seven centuries of Western visualisation — fixed gazes and perspective. Maybe VR is truly apt for transcendental events.

What if then, you could pull a thread through all these disciplines, I mean characters, and knowing their strengths and weaknesses deploy them when needed, but also collapse them to create a super super hero — a supra structure? It’ll be like the the next gen spiderman with all the best bits of everyone else.

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Would we be better of teaching a new generation about Art. The art too of storytelling — the craft skill that appear throughout history to which journalism is not one strand.

Take Homer’s Iliad, Gilgamesh or the Griots and the impact of myth. Then there’s leaps in literature and Art; pre- renaissance spectres, such as Erasmus’s In Praise of Folly — a text that is multimedia in its context, to Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge where time all but stands still, then Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killing where multiculturalism and diversity bursts through the pages in rich witty dialogue.

The brilliance of Into the Spider-verse is you could easily fail to see how the film’s premise would work, but it’s going down a treat with audiences. Like art, it takes an unconventional path to pose questions.

The parallel works equally well to explain the story-verse. Today, it’s not just knowing any one of the characters, but how they work together to envelop plot and help the author relay a memorable story.

If this were to work, what could we call it? Over a five year period I researched all over the world and one term kept cropping up. It builds on existing work and the legacy of the 1960s film manifesto of Robert Drews Direct Cinema. It’s captured in Madison’s post truth book on journalism

We’ve called it Cinema Journalism. You can find out more on medium. Coming soon I’ll upload the promo, but for now this is how some of the most noted news, doc, film people express their thoughts.

Written by

Top Writer & Creative Technologist, Int. Award Winner. Cinemajournalist. Cardiff Uni @jomec. PhD (Dublin). Visiting Prof UBC, Ex BBC/C4News. Apple profiled.

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