He-Man and The Art of Storytelling

In many ways, Masters of the Universe was already a transmedia story, at least as much as the technology of the day would allow. He-Man not only appeared in the Filmnation-produced cartoons but his story was extended into the mini comic books which came with each action figures, on the collector cards and sticker books and coloring books and kids books, each of which gave us a chance to learn a little something more about Eternia, Castle Grayskull, and the other places where these stories took place.

And of course, He-Man was only one of the many media franchises which were producing action figures. My son collected figures from Pee-Wee’s Playhouse and the World Wrestling Federation, not to mention a smathering of Transformers, Thundercats, Silverhawks, and many other toy lines. Once they were removed from their packages, these toys could be mixed and matched to create new kinds of stories, which might involve meet-ups and cross-overs unlikely to occur in commercial media (though there was at least one DC comic where Superman and He-Man combined forces) but almost inevitable once kids got their hands on the toys.

Sometimes an action figure would stand in for another character not yet acquired much as an actor plays a fictional role and in other cases the pleasure was in experimenting with the boundaries between texts and genres, with the mixing of characters forcing them to rethink the scripts. The cross-over points to the generative dimensions of this action figure play – the ways that kids would move from re-performing favorite stories or ritualizing conventional elements from the series to breaking with conventions and creating their own narratives.

I never understood the parents who feared such toys would stifle my son’s imagination because what I observed was very much the opposite – a child learning to appropriate and remix the materials of his culture. The fact that these stories were shared through mass media with other kids and that they were some vividly embodied in the action figures meant that it was easy for children to have intersubjective fantasies, to share their play stories with each other, and to pool knowledge about the particulars of this fictional realm.

Henry Jenkins explores transmedia storytelling through the lens of He-Man and other 80’s action figures.  He also comes about as close as anyone to describing the model which served the bulk of my childhood.  [via]

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