Heroes Are Over With: Possibilities for Folk Hybridity in Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog
Katie L. Ramos
University of Wisconsin, Madison
Folklorists have long sought to illuminate the blurry boundary between contemporary popular culture and folk culture, and in the information age that boundary is fuzzier than ever. The internet provides tools for the folk to produce creative works and disseminate them widely while remaining mostly anonymous. These tools have also allowed greater interaction between producers of popular media and their fan (folk) base. Camille Bacon-Smith and Henry Jenkins have identified a “participatory culture” in which fans produce their own creative works (on and offline) in response to popular film and television. The more recent phenomenon of internet-based high-budget programming has led to an even greater level of interaction between media producers and their fans. One example is Joss Whedon’s 2008 web production Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. Whedon was known for friendly interaction with his fans, but when he developed Dr. Horrible he encouraged them to engage actively in creative play with the musical, partly through a contest that asked viewers to create their own video responses to the musical. The ten best were included on the DVD release. This paper examines how the producers and fans of Dr. Horrible entered into a (lopsided) reciprocal performance, inventing and re-inventing a shared, creative event.
Fan participatory culture has generally operated on the margins of media events: Star Trek fans make their “zines” and attend conventions in costume, Harry Potter fans write fan fiction online, and Survivor fans on message boards try to deduce who will be voted off the island next. The fans engage in their play often with little notice from the major media producers or despite cease and desist orders, as in the case of Harry Potter fan fiction writers (Bacon-Smith 1992; Jenkins 2006). In 1990, John Dorst feared that new communication technologies would blur the line between mass culture and folk culture until the folk became indiscernible; mass culture threatened to subsume the “non- or even anti-hegemonic” views of the folk (Dorst 1990). Contrary to this vision of mass media development, online fan groups serve as an example of a folk group that has retained or reinvigorated its creative autonomy and independent voice despite the ubiquity of mass media.
With the premiere of films like Spiderman 3 (2007), The Dark Knight (2008), Iron Man (2008), and Watchmen (2009) has come a surge of superhero (and supervillain) costumed play (cosplay). Adult viewers dress up for movie premieres, comic book conventions, and themed parties, simulating an embodied fantasy world rather than passively consuming it. Yet this activity often occurs on the fringe of these media events, with the film as the central core of the event, and any ensuing participatory behaviors as distant, unsolicited responses. One superhero media event of 2008, however, sought out audience participation and in so doing sparked several folk art phenomena. Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog (2008) has become a model for mass media/vernacular audience interaction.
During the Writer’s Guild of America strike from November 2007 to February 2008, Joss Whedon—writer/producer of the hit/cult television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997), Angel (1999), Firefly (2002), and Dollhouse (2009)—along with his brothers Zack, Jed, and Jed’s fiancée Maurissa Tancheroen wrote a supervillain musical for distribution on the internet. They intended to distribute the production for free on Hulu (http://www.hulu.com) for the first week after its premiere, then offer it for download for a small fee on iTunes, and later release a DVD with special features. They intended to demonstrate that Hollywood does not have a stranglehold on entertainment media. Thus, Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog was born out of a desire to work outside the Hollywood system, to make a “really thrilling, professionalish piece of entertainment” cheaply, and to “change the face of Show Business” (Whedon 2008). Whedon personally financed the project, allowing him freedom he wouldn’t necessarily have in working with a studio (Baldwin 2008).
Due to their budget constraints, however, the producers relied heavily on grass roots involvement for their project to succeed. Not only did they depend on a word-of-blog campaign to create hype about the project, but they also produced a video that encouraged fan participation, sat back and watched while fans appropriated and played with Dr. Horrible content once it premiered, and ultimately sponsored a contest asking for the best creative fan videos. With this level of fan involvement and creativity, we can see a greater convergence of mass entertainment culture and folk culture.
This paper will focus specifically on the fan videos and the ways in which they engage with and diverge from the original Dr. Horrible narrative. After discussing key folklore and media scholarship, particularly from Robert Glenn Howard, Camille Bacon-Smith, Henry Jenkins, and Pierre Lévy, I will examine both the way in which Dr. Horrible was marketed and Dr. Horrible fan videos in order to demonstrate that web-based media events have the potential to produce a new kind of folk expression—one in which mass media producers and folk communities come closer to equal footing and participate in extended interaction with each other.
Where fans connect they tend to engage in “participatory culture.” Henry Jenkins writes:
Patterns of media consumption have been profoundly altered by a succession of new media technologies that enable average citizens to participate in the archiving, annotation, appropriation, transformation, and recirculation of media content. Participatory culture refers to the new style of consumerism that emerges in this environment….The first and foremost demand consumers make is the right to participate in the creation and distribution of media narratives. (Jenkins 2003, 286)
In participatory culture we see constant ebbs and flows of content production from fans and spottier engagement from top-down media producers. Fan culture picks up where studio producers leave off, often putting the fans at odds with producers who wish to retain rigid control of their content. Yet the fans persevere, even in the face of objections from studio attorneys, demonstrating their need to participate actively in their culture rather than consuming it passively.
Robert Glenn Howard examines more closely the vernacularity of participatory media, identifying “extending webs of network-based folk culture” (Howard 2008, 192). In his model, online communication is a “persistent process,” and in it an individual online community recognizes the “continuities and consistencies” that help it to judge what is traditional (Howard 200-201; Georges 1). These continuities lead to “shared expectations” that serve as indicators for a particular community, and they are often the sole indicator for online communities (Howard 202). The vernacular online community, whether acting in support of or in opposition to an institution, exists because it is non-institutional. Because of this opposition to the institutional, the “vernacular takes part in the institutional” which means it exists only in “degrees of hybridity” (203). This hybridity is marked by a tension between the institutional and vernacular. I intend to show that in the case of Dr. Horrible, this tension eases tremendously, as the institutional producers put greater creative impetus into their fans’ hands.
Jenkins suggests that the sites of fan convergence demonstrate what Pierre Lévy describes as “collective intelligence” (Jenkins 2006, 26-27). Collective intelligence refers to:
A form of universally distributed intelligence, constantly enhanced, coordinated in real time, and resulting in the effective mobilization of skills….The basis and goal of collective intelligence is the mutual recognition and enrichment of individuals rather than the cult of fetishized or hypostatisized communities. (Lévy 1997, 13; original emphasis)
Lévy argues that collective intelligence broadens in the emerging world of digital communication. Cyberspace opens up “deterritorialized,” “shifting” spaces for knowledge interaction and exchange (Lévy 1997, 14-15). Knowledge in Lévy’s collective intelligence is open-ended, perpetually in flux (70-74). I argue that part of the process of collective intelligence, however, must include the already common factors that tie a community together. Charles Briggs writes of the context that always already exists in a folk group; individual performances would not come about without the discursive setting of a community’s “metacommunicative framework” (Briggs 1988, 15). Lévy’s emphasis on a perpetually shifting distributed intelligence is emergent from the framework described by Briggs and others in the effort to define performance contexts. The tension between Lévy’s open-ended, perpetually mutable knowledge and Briggs’ understanding of a pre-existing framework for performance engenders the persistent process asserted by Howard. In sum, performance, whether vernacular or otherwise, web-based or otherwise, emerges from an interaction between pre-existing contexts and an ongoing communicative process in the performative community.
In the case of Dr. Horrible fans, this interaction takes place in the form of play. While Clifford Geertz and Brian Sutton-Smith argue respectively that play supports or refracts the cultures from which it emerges, Camille Bacon-Smith offers an alternative understanding for the kind of imaginative play which develops within fan culture (Bacon-Smith 1993, 286-287). In her discussion of female Star Trek fans, Bacon-Smith identifies that the fans’ play allows them to create serious, feminine narrative alternatives, masked from the dominant masculine culture by its playfulness (in other words, non-seriousness). In creating their shared narratives, the fans develop a worldview that depends on the shared narrative structures present in their community (290-292). This kind of imaginative play and creative narration appear in Dr. Horrible fandom, but as we shall see below, Dr. Horrible fans concern themselves less with masking the alterity of their play and more with active engagement with the institution and even the larger community.
Tell Them the Tale: The Word-of-Blog Campaign
The vernacular nature of the Dr. Horrible project appears even in its marketing (or lack thereof). Getting the word out was an obstacle in producing the project independently. Whedon told National Public Radio’s Laura Sydell that they couldn’t afford any mass marketing. Despite this limitation, the server hosting Dr. Horrible crashed July 15, 2008, when the first episode was released, and Whedon said they received roughly 1000 hits per minute (Sydell 2008). Whedon and company achieved this massive fan base, despite their limited marketing resources, through an internet-wide word-of-mouth campaign. Whedonesque, the fan blog devoted to Whedon, shows that he and his crew did not have to do much to get the word out.
On March 15, 2008, Neil Patrick Harris (“Billy”/”Dr. Horrible”) did an interview with Ain’t It Cool News promoting the movie Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay. At the end of the interview he mentions doing Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog with Joss Whedon, and a user posted it on Whedonesque that day (Quint 2008; Whedonesque 2008). The next day, Joss Whedon commented on the post saying, “So…..The bag is catless.” He then provided a few details about the project. By March 24, a fan site emerged, with a link to the “official” site which contained only a promotional poster. Over the next three months, Whedon and the cast gave interviews mostly with smaller market news sites and blogs, and fans discussed rumors they heard from on set. On June 25, the fan site posted the Dr. Horrible teaser, somehow getting ahold of it a day before it was set to premiere on the official site (“Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog Official Fan Site.”). Felicia Day (“Penny”) asked fans on her blog to spread the word, and within 48 hours of its release, the video received over 60,000 hits (Whedonesque 2008).
With the release of Dr. Horrible, internet users pooled their resources not only to form a collective intelligence, but also to create a collective event. Whedon wrote in his Master Plan, “It wouldn’t hurt if this really was an event,” and that is what it became (Whedon 2008). The Whedon fan community seemed to relish the anticipation and their role in the publicity. The archives of the blog posts on Whedonesque from March 15 until the release on July 15 looked like a mystery game. Felicia Day would reveal a small amount of information on her blog or Neil Patrick Harris would give an interview to Entertainment Weekly, and the fans would start speculating and spreading the information around, searching every word for clues about the coming event. Meanwhile Whedon and his crew were able to put more money in the project rather than spending it on publicity. Jenkins writes that Survivor “spoilers” “form a knowledge community,” and that is precisely what happened in the fan-inspired publicity for Dr. Horrible (Jenkins 2006, 26-27). By putting faith in a largely word-of-mouth campaign to publicize Dr. Horrible’s release, Whedon and his team were not only making a sound financial decision. They also allowed the fans to build their own set of expectations for the video.
Viral and word-of-mouth advertising are not new. Yet they present in a unique way in this context. Joss Whedon is a writer/director/producer of great achievement. The first television show he created ran for seven seasons, and three of his network shows have become cult hits with massive DVD sales. Yet Whedon decided he wanted to find “another way” of creating, producing, and distributing entertainment (Whedon 2008). The story in Dr. Horrible subtly invites fan participation, but Whedon, his co-creators, and their actors ask for it outright in promoting the video. In his “Master Plan,” Whedon writes:
Spread the word. Rock some banners, widgets, diggs… let people know who wouldn’t ordinarily know. It wouldn’t hurt if this really was an event. Good for the business, good for the community….Proving we can turn Dr Horrible into a viable economic proposition as well as an awesome goof will only inspire more people to lay themselves out in the same way. It’s time for the dissemination of the artistic process. Create more for less. You are the ones that can make that happen. (Whedon 2008; my emphasis)
We can see in the case of Dr. Horrible, participatory culture serves partly as a means of hype. Jonathan Gray discusses how media industries use the hype leading up to the release of movies and television shows not only as a means of drawing an audience but also as a means of steering the audience toward a particular meaning. Drawing on Gerard Genette, he calls the hype and synergy surrounding a text “paratexts” (Gray 2008, 33-34). While Gray mentions fan discussions as one kind of paratext, his primary emphasis in his article “Television Pre-views and the Meaning of Hype” is industry-driven advertising. He demonstrates how ABC and NBC created expectations for a particular kind of meaning and a particular kind of story with their ad campaigns for two different new series (35-38). Without an industry or author-driven marketing strategy, Dr. Horrible invites the fans (many of whom helped publicize the project) to make meaning for themselves. In this case, the paratexts are not only vital to the audience’s comprehension of the text, but the audience is also vital to the paratext. Thus in Dr. Horrible the audience and text merge inextricably.
Given that the producers placed the early paratexts largely in their fans’ hands and given that the fans became fans long before the production existed, the fans largely directed the meaning as they and other viewers entered the production. Whedon’s emphasis on the absolute necessity of the fans’ support makes them part of the project, rather than passive consumers. The lead up to the premiere of the production welcomed and encouraged audience participation, making the event a collective effort. The word-of-blog effort emerged from an existing context of Joss Whedon fans which gave the production and the fan performances that would follow greater traction and visibility. An examination of the production itself shows how Whedon engages with participatory culture in a meta-discourse on internet participation and fandom.
Hammer, Meet Nail: So who’s the hero and who’s the villain?
To understand what is happening on the participatory level, we need to understand the basic narrative of the musical. Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog fits neatly into 42:25 of streaming video, but the narrative is surprisingly complex. The protagonist, Dr. Horrible/Billy (Neil Patrick Harris), is an aspiring supervillain who needs to perform an impressive caper in order to join an elite organization of supervillains, The Evil League of Evil, headed by a villain called Bad Horse. His nemesis Captain Hammer (Nathan Fillion) thwarts his attempt to steal some “wonderflonium” from a courier van, nearly killing Dr. Horrible’s crush, Penny (Felicia Day), in the process. She believes that Captain Hammer stopped the van and begins dating him. Dr. Horrible tries to ignore this and go ahead with his plan to stop time and disrupt the opening of the city’s Superhero Memorial Bridge, but he is thwarted again by Captain Hammer. At this point, Bad Horse leaves Dr. Horrible a voicemail saying that after that blunder, he will need to commit murder to get into the League or he will be killed himself. He hesitates at the idea of murder at first, but when Captain Hammer rubs his relationship with Penny in Dr. Horrible’s face, Dr. Horrible realizes that killing Captain Hammer would be perfect. He appears at the dedication of a homeless shelter Captain Hammer helped Penny open, but as can be expected, his plan to kill Captain Hammer backfires. At first it seems that Captain Hammer is merely injured and Dr. Horrible will emerge without having killed anyone, but then we discover that several pieces of shrapnel have hit Penny in the preceding fight, and she is mortally wounded. The musical finale shows Dr. Horrible’s descent into true evil, as he pushes his grief over Penny down and embraces villainy. It is important to realize that Dr. Horrible is the protagonist, and the viewer identifies with him most. The production paints Captain Hammer as an egotistical jerk who uses women and is more like a schoolyard bully than a hero.
An important Whedon-esque trait, in addition to creative and complex plots, is clever, highly referential dialogue, settings, and characters. This is significant in our discussion of fandom in Dr. Horrible as Whedon fans are expected to have a certain amount of specialized knowledge to access the production fully. The musical is framed by Dr. Horrible’s video blog, and his dialogue and behaviors reflect internet and blog culture and language. He peppers his speech with internet jargon. He neglects the possibility that his viewers may include his nemesis and the police, as well as anonymous readers; bloggers will often forget how public their writing is and reveal something that gets them into trouble in the offline world. He also reads out emails and responds to them on his blog, which indicates the practice of blog comments and exchanges.
Another point of referential entry for Whedon fans involves the presence of fandom within the production itself. The comments on Dr. Horrible’s blog are the first example of this. The first two viewers who comment challenge Dr. Horrible’s authority and authenticity (typical on blogs), and the last asks a very personal question about Dr. Horrible’s love interest. Later in the video a musical montage reveals Captain Hammer’s wide popularity. Two anchors on a local news program sing about Captain Hammer’s achievements, parodying contemporary news media’s tendency to focus on celebrities’ lives. We then see three “fans”: two women and a man, all young, all in Captain Hammer t-shirts. They sing, “So they say that it’s real love / So romantic / He signed this,” and one holds up an autographed picture. Later they sing, “So they say he saved her life / They say she works with the homeless and doesn’t eat meat / We have a problem with her / This is his hair,” and again, one holds up a baggie with a lock of hair in it. Responding to Captain Hammer’s assertion that having sex with the same woman for a second time may mean he gets to do the “weird stuff,” the trio of fans lean into the frame and say, “We do the weird stuff.” In their final appearance in the montage they sing, “This is his dry-cleaning bill / For a sweater vest.” The trio appears again at the dedication of the homeless shelter, enraptured by his speech (in song form). Their final appearance occurs in the finale song. Dr. Horrible has defeated Captain Hammer, and the fans now appear in Dr. Horrible t-shirts, with replicas of his signature goggles on their heads. One of them grins and holds up Dr. Horrible fan art.
The fans seem to shift in stereotype, from starry-eyed celebrity stalkers to sci-fi convention geeks. The latter is indicated as they imitate Dr. Horrible by wearing his goggles, and most important for our discussion, as they create fan art. The fan art is emblematic of participatory culture, representing fan videos, fan fiction, and fan discussion forums and blogs. Whedon’s work has a long history with fandom; Buffy fans and Firefly fans have been loyal and active. For Whedon to insert fans into Dr. Horrible indicates a conscious self-reflexivity. He addresses the fans playfully, simultaneously addressing the role they play in making a superhero or supervillain while mildly mocking the more zealous parts of participatory culture.
We can see this self-reflexivity in the allegorical storyline as well. Dr. Horrible represents the little guy with good intentions trying to upend the status quo. Captain Hammer is a “corporate tool,” whom everyone worships and appreciates. Even Penny, a fervent social reformer, does not see through Captain Hammer’s charade of goodness at first. As the audience is meant to identify with Dr. Horrible, the story indicates that we may have to be a little bad in order to effect good. As Dr. Horrible says to Penny, “The disease rages on, consumes the human race. The fish rots from the head, as they say, so my thinking is why not cut off the head….I’m talking about an overhaul of the system. Putting the power in different hands.” Dr. Horrible seeks to change the system, to subvert it. This is precisely what Whedon and his co-creators sought to do with Dr. Horrible. As Whedon wrote in “The Master Plan”: “The idea was to…show how much could be done with very little. To show the world there is another way” (Whedon 2008). This echoes what Dr. Horrible says in the first act of the musical. He is reading emails from his viewers aloud, and one writes, “You always say in your blog that you will show her the way, show her you are a true villain….” Dr. Horrible seeks to show the world the way, to “destroy the status quo,” and to bring about social change. Joss Whedon and his co-creators seek to show the world there are new ways of producing and distributing entertainment and that the media industry does not have to dominate media creators. Given the creation of Dr. Horrible against the milieu of the WGA strike and Whedon’s statement that the project was partly an experiment to find ways of working around the media industry, we can see Dr. Horrible as representative of Whedon, his co-creators, and even the WGA in general. Captain Hammer, then, would represent the media corporations trying to stifle the innovations of their writers.
With the incorporation of fans and participatory media into the narrative, the producers acknowledge the grass roots base that drives their project. They acknowledge the collectivity and vernacularity that have driven them to create a work framed within a participatory medium. They recognize their fans as a key component to their project, as contributing members of their community.
Get a Pic! Do a Blog: Participating in Dr. Horrible
The presence of the fans and the blog frame implicitly invite fans to engage with Dr. Horrible. This fact is compounded when we look at how the project was marketed, at the history of fan interaction with Whedon works, and Whedon’s tendency to interact familiarly with his fans on the web, and their tendency to see him as one of them. As such, we can see Dr. Horrible as a meta-discourse among fan texts. The producers of Dr. Horrible have produced their project in a way that aligns it more closely with fan culture than mass entertainment, and this is reflected in the fan response.
Fan commentary videos appeared on YouTube on July 16, 2008, the day after the first act premiered. The first creative fan video I have been able to find appeared on July 17, the day the second act appeared on Hulu. YouTube user Markandrich’s video features a man in a black lab coat calling himself “Dr. Dreadful.” The two minute video serves as his application to become Dr. Horrible’s sidekick. Many later fan videos feature fans creating their own villains who are applying for entry into the Evil League of Evil, which will be discussed below. Sometime in the month following Dr. Dreadful’s post (YouTube is ambiguous about the dates comments are posted, but I believe it was within a few days of the original post), the official Dr. Horrible YouTube channel, doctorhorrible, posted a comment on the video which said simply, “Your application is under review. –Dr. Horrible.”
I am uncertain as to the timeline, but the notion of taking “applications” from fans manifested into something larger. On July 25, 2008, (only six days after the final installment of the video was posted), Joss Whedon announced on a panel at Comic-Coni that they would eventually be accepting applications to the Evil League of Evil, and the ten best would be included in the DVD special features (“Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog Official Fan Site.”). This opened a flood of fan videos applying to the League, even before the official rules for the contest and the instructions for submission were posted on September 26 (“Evil League of Evil.”).
Contrasting the rules for the League applications to LucasArts’ invitation for fans to create their own Star Wars content in 2000 emphasizes the highly interactive goals of the Dr. Horrible producers. After sending warnings to ‘zine editors for roughly two decades, LucasArts created a website where fans could create their own content with several caveats: 1) all content would become the intellectual property of LucasArts; 2) films must not use copyrighted Star Wars music or video; and 3) films are obliged to parody existing Star Wars content or document Star Wars’ fans’ experience (Jenkins 2003, 153-59).
In stark contrast, the rules for the League applications are quite open:
- It should be no more than three minutes in length.
- There should be little to no swearing.2
- Dialogue, logos, and music must be original.3
- Songs are not required (singing is a bonus).
- You must be evil — it’s a plus to have a name.
- Your application video should be posted to YouTube or Vimeo.
- Email us a link to the video, with your contact information.4 (Evil League of Evil 2008)
Endnote 3 to the rules reads, “We’re evil, not stupid,” which is a rather vague assertion of copyright, and I question whether this is about intellectual property or more about encouraging creative content. The official Dr. Horrible website contains no copyright references or symbols. Users posted direct video clips of Dr. Horrible and entire songs on YouTube almost immediately after its release which are still available, and many fan videos exist, including Evil League of Evil applications, that make use of Dr. Horrible music clips and video without comment from the creators. Additionally, one can find fan videos, either in the form of Evil League of Evil applications or other responses, which do not adhere to the guidelines and simply were not submitted to the contest. Unlike LucasArts, the Dr. Horrible creators are not asking fans to “celebrate” the franchise but to actively participate in creating the continuing story (Jenkins 2003, 153-154). Thus they invite their fans to create meaning after the text, just as they did before the text, and they welcome all contributions. While only ten videos were selected for the DVD, hundreds were named as “dishonorable mentions.”
An analysis of some of the Evil League of Evil video applications will provide some insight into how the fans are engaging with Dr. Horrible. The first comes from a villain calling herself “The Vengeful Vegan.” She is a young woman who has her hair in two long braids, wears a bandana, and has two V’s embedded within each other on her forehead. She begins her application asking, “Do you hear the screams? Those are the screams of mother nature.” She declares she will “destroy the world in order to save it.” She is joined by her perky friend Allison who claims that they are an evil duo. They break into a folksy song, singing about their desire to protect the environment by removing “the toxins called the human race,” changing locations from a street scene to a field of grass and back to their dorm room where they began. As their song finishes, another girl, Jenna, comes to their door to talk to them, and as she leaves, she drops her water bottle near their recycling bin. Allison attempts to sooth the Vengeful Vegan by offering her a drink from her Nalgene, but the Vengeful Vegan has decided Jenna should be their next victim. She says they will tie her up and make her watch documentaries about slaughterhouses and An Inconvenient Truth, and then they’ll “go on a lengthy drive in my hybrid, and give her a stern talking to about alternate energy solutions.” Allison follows this up by looking maniacally into the camera, saying they will then dismember her with a chainsaw and make her drink her own blood—from a Nalgene.
The winning submission from “The Reverend,” attributed to D. Vincent Ervig-Linquist, is not quite as morally ambiguous as The Vengeful Vegan and Dr. Horrible, but it plays with satire and looks critically at social constructions of good. The Reverend is a puppet preacher who raps his application. In the first portion of the video, he promises the League that he’ll “make puppets of the entire population,” using his power as a minister to control people. He also promises salvation if they let him in and certain damnation if they do no not. In the next verse he asserts that he has no problem with killing because he knows he is in the right, and he would only be sending people where they belong, either to heaven or to hell. The final verse reveals that the Reverend was actually kicked out of his church for being a “sexual deviant,” and as he sings about why Bad Horse should let him into the League, he makes repeated slips that reveal potential sexual feelings toward Bad Horse. This video satires church corruption, taking a figure which generally professes goodness and pointing out its darker side.
In response to a note in the contest rules reading, “Henchmen need not apply. Please contact your union,” Vimeo user The Steward submitted an entry questioning the validity of the contest rules. He claims to be the shop steward for the Association of Thieves, Henchmen, Underlings, and Goons (A.T.H.U.G.). He asserts that villains are nothing without the help of their henchmen and demands that they have a voice at the Evil League of Evil’s table. He tells his fellow A.T.H.U.G. members that they have power in numbers and threaten to strike should the League continue its policy of exclusion. The Steward finds the good in the people and open democracy, which is appropriate given the multiple voices in participatory culture. The video also plays with Dr. Horrible’s entire reason for being: the WGA strike. This furthers the interaction between the fan and the media producer, as the Steward places himself in Whedon and his team’s role as the exploited laborers.
YouTube user MilesToGoFilms submitted a submission for “Earl Grey,” a member of the British upper class who wants to dominate the world in order to give it higher standards. While the video is a broad satire of the upper classes, among personal interests such as “oriental cooking,” he includes “waterboarding,” pointing perhaps to a more specific commentary on contemporary warfare.
YouTube user fondueisfolklore submitted an application for “Assisted Homicide,” a medical resident who recommends euthanasia for the majority of cases and implements it with or without the patient’s consent. As she says, “what these people do is hardly called living…plagued by the…chronic disappointment of their subjugated suburban lives.” This fan makes a judgment about ordinary living and suggests that living fully is worthwhile.
Another contest winner came from Nir Idan: the Duchess of Defeet is a stop-motion animated table leg who plans to stub as many toes as she can. The entire entry focuses on two table legs with animated faces and the (live-action) feet that come by.
We can see then how Whedon and his co-creators’ invitation to participate in Dr. Horrible has opened up abundant new meanings in the story. Each fan video offers a different interpretation of how a villain might ply his or her trade. The Vengeful Vegan offers a narrative of an environmentalist’s fight against the hegemonic social order, the Reverend gives us a stirring satire on religious hypocrisy, the Steward plays with the ideas of organized labor from which Dr. Horrible emerged—pointing out irony on Whedon’s part, and Earl Grey, Assisted Homicide, and Duchess of Defeet offer different takes on sadism and nihilism. These are just a few examples among thousands of entries, all with their own creative interpretation of who can be a supervillain and what he or she might stand for. The videos offer creativity of style as well as content. As noted, a majority of the videos include original music and specialized costuming. The Reverend presented clever puppetry, and Duchess of Defeet used sophisticated stop-motion animation.
By inviting fans to create their own villains that became part of the Dr. Horrible universe, the producers engaged them in open play. The narrative the fans create, however, is not necessarily alternative to that of the institutional producers. They work within the established structure: supervillains trying to get a break, supervillains as protagonists. The fans are actually taking part in a collective catalyzed by Joss Whedon and his cohorts, and they helped create the collective by participating in Whedon blogs and forums and other participatory media before Dr. Horrible came to be.
Dr. Horrible: To Be Continued
The DVD release was not the end for Dr. Horrible. The musical continued to gain attention throughout 2009, sweeping eight awards at the 2009 Streamys.ii On September 12, 2009, it won an Emmy Award in the new “short-format live-action entertainment program” category (“Dr. Horrible wins first Emmy”). The creators have developed several web comics based on the program, and Zack Whedon premiered a comic book published by Dark Horse in November. In addition, the team is currently working on a sequel (Marshall). Finally, as of this writing, a quick YouTube search generated at least 14 results for Dr. Horrible fan videos and other Dr. Horrible participatory videos for just the past week. Dr. Horrible fans are still creating content almost two years after its premiere.
Conclusion: The Status is Not Quo
Most mass media entertainment has the same kind of dependency on their fans (their grass roots base) that Dr. Horrible has. Whedon, et al. simply recognize it and, ultimately, use it to their advantage. Beyond using their fan base for grass roots marketing, the producers’ attempts to engage their audience in an extended communicative process promotes loyalty[iii] and engenders a common identification or collective intelligence. The collective as a whole expresses an alternative narrative: the supervillain’s story, and perhaps the more sublimated narrative pitting small-time media producers against corporate media institutions. Within the collective, however, we hear multiple voices expressing disparate ideas, all through the same supervillain structure each validated by the larger institution. Thus we can see that the collective emerges from an unending dialogue, one grounded in an already existing context, and teased out between the institutional voice(s) on one side and the vernacular voices on the other.
This particular participatory media phenomenon provides an example of mass media/vernacular hybridity. The conclusions drawn from it serve to complicate the mass media/vernacular divide in a positive direction. We have an example of the institutional actively involving its audience in the process of creating expression, but it is not isolated or unique. Webcomic artists, internet “television” programmers, bloggers, and independent musicians have all recognized the value of opening up their art to fan commentary and participation. The difference in this instance is the extreme notoriety of the producers. Perhaps this kind of event will fulfill Whedon’s hope to “show the world there is another way.” Major media outlets are already providing controlled interactive possibilities with their objects, as we have seen in the case of Star Wars. As this type of participation persists in the smaller scale media it may apply pressure to larger media institutions to open up their interactivity further, welcoming a greater amount of vernacular hybridity. The collective intelligence forming on the internet demands it more and more, and media participants will continue to take ownership of their culture’s means of expression.
i A comics and science fiction convention held in San Diego every summer.
ii An awards show for Web television.
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Katie L. Ramos is a master’s student in the Department of Communication Arts at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her research interests include online vernacular discourse, digital visual culture, internet humor, and constructions of identity and community on the web.