Andrew Friedenthal (UT AMS PhD, 2014) published his second academic monograph this year, The World of DC Comics (Routledge, 2019). AMS :: ATX sat down with Friedenthal to discuss the origins of the new project, the inspiration he draws from imaginary worlds, and how his training in American Studies shapes his work as a writer, playwright and critic.
1. Can you tell us a little bit about your new book, The World of DC Comics, and how you came to the project?
A major source for the theoretical backing of my first book (Retcon Game: Retroactive Continuity and the Hyperlinking of America) was Mark J. P. Wolf’s Building Imaginary Worlds: The Theory and History of Subcreation. When it came time to get a pull quote for the front of the book, the publisher and I approached Mark, who was gracious enough to provide one. He then wrote to me about the new Imaginary Worlds series that he’s editing four Routledge press. Spinning out of his earlier work, the series consists of relatively short academic monograph exploring various fictional worlds, ranging from Mr. Roger’s “Neighborhood of Make-Believe” to The Walking Dead. Since Retcon Game dealt so extensively with comic book continuity, Mark thought of me for writing a book about the world of DC Comics.
My first proposal for the book was way too broad for a small, focused text, so I tried to center in on what I thought made the world-building in DC Comics’ publications unique. What I realized, then, was that this was the first fictional world to fully exploit the possibilities of a multiverse—the idea of parallel realities with similar, slightly different, and/or radically unique takes on the same world, characters, storylines, etc. So the book became a history and examination of how DC Comics has used the concept of a multiverse to tell stories that focus on legacy, possibility, and (most importantly) fun!
And according to my grandmother, you can understand it even if you’re not previously familiar with the comic book stories or characters I discuss and analyze.
2. What projects or people have inspired your work?
Janet Davis was my advisor at UT, and she’s my primary model as a scholar. I learned from her that to interrogate popular culture means to constantly keep aware of intersectional issues of race, gender, class, sexuality, etc., and that following your personal interests, fascinations, and obsessions can be a fruitful endeavor so long as you always keep in mind the “so what” question of why these things are meaningful. As previously mentioned, I’m also very influenced as a scholar by Mark J. P. Wolf, who has sort of laid out the framework for how to interrogate large-scale fictional constructs like the DC Universe.
However, I’m probably most inspired by creative works. The reason I like exploring fictional realms of such big scope is because I love escaping into the world of comic books, or Star Wars, or theme parks. In fact, perhaps my biggest inspiration is, believe it or not, the Disney theme parks. The way in which the Disney Imagineers create wholly immersive realms that pay attention to every detail never ceases to amaze me, and so I always try to bring that same sense of structure, scale, and specificity to my own work, whether it’s creative, journalistic or academic.
3. How does your background in American Studies impact your writing, and your career in general?
My current “day job” is as a copywriter, which involves a mix of technical detail, attention to careful crafting of language, and the ability to think of an interconnected broader picture. These same skills are vital in my other work, as a playwright and a theater critic/reviewer here in Austin.
All of that comes from the academic training I received in American Studies, a field that encourages an equal focus on both that zoomed out focus and very tiny intricacies. So it has impacted my career and my writing outside of my academic work, allowing me to look at both the large and the small scale simultaneously.
4. What advice do you have for students in our department about getting the most out of their experience at UT?
Probably my biggest advice is to not center your life around UT or the department. As much as I learned all the skills I use in my current jobs as a graduate student, a great deal of career-building comes from good old-fashioned networking. Much of my social life during my time in grad school centered around a competitive karaoke league, and I volunteered to run the league’s social media. It was through that experience, and the contacts I made as a result, that I was able to get my foot in the door in the copywriting world. They say that luck is what happens when opportunity meets preparedness—grad school gives you the preparedness, but getting out there and living a life besides graduate work gives you the opportunities.
I would also say start thinking now about what kind of career you’d like to pursue besides the traditional tenure-track path. Those jobs are getting rarer and harder to get, but you can parlay your skills into so many different exciting directions, and focusing too much on just one road to success and happiness risks setting yourself up for disappointment.
5. What projects are you excited to work on in the future?
I’m currently writing a paper for an edited collection about fictional narratives inspired by tourist attractions, and long-term I want to work on a broader project about immersive entertainment, in general.
But my primary focus right now is actually on the creative side. I’m workshopping several new plays and getting started on some other creative writing projects, all of which should keep me busy for a few years before I (hopefully) return to another academic monograph.