THE GENESIS OF PLANET VENISON: CONTINUING TRADITION
AND INVENTING GENRE
Joshua Alan Terry
A thesis submitted in partial fulfillment
of the requirements for the degree
MASTER OF SCIENCE
UTAH STATE UNIVERSITY
Copyright © Joshua Alan Terry 2004
All Rights Reserved
The Genesis of Planet Venison: Continuing Tradition
and Inventing Genre
Joshua Alan Terry, Master of Science
Utah State University, 2004
Major Professor: Christopher Cokinos
Department: American Studies
The fictional community is a narrative device that has appeared in numerous traditional genres, from literature such as Garrison Keillor's Lake Wobegon Days to Matt Groenig's television series "The Simpsons." The Planet Venison web site, first launched in 2002, continues this narrative tradition and brings it into the realm of hypermedia fiction. Planet Venison presents the satirical "story" of a fictional artist colony located in Southeastern Idaho. This story, which resembles the concept of "Total Artwork" pursued by Wagner, is constructed from web pages about the colony's residents and the artistic works they produce. Freed from many of the structural and chronological constraints of other genres, the Planet Venison site may constitute a new fictional genre unique to the World Wide Web. "The Genesis of Planet Venison" is a critical study of this possibility, as well as an analysis of how the site can be situated in a literary and pop-culture context.
II. THE FICTIONAL COMMUNITY
III. PLANET VENISON: PAST
IV. PLANET VENISON: PRESENT
CONCLUSION: THE FUTURE OF PLANET VENISON
APPENDIX A: WEB SHOTS OF PLANET VENISON
APPENDIX B: THE PLANET VENISON WEB SITE
In the spring of 2002 I completed two months of creative activity by officially launching the Planet Venison web site. Planet Venison is a hypermedia manifestation of a narrative device I have identified as the "fictional community." This device can be located in any number of different fictional genres, from poetry to television. Rather than follow the traditional parameters of narrative, which tend to focus on a single linear sequence, works employing the fictional community often construct a collective story, assembled from separate smaller narratives that together tell the story of the community, whether in the form of a town or simply a group of connected characters. Planet Venison is a satirical web site dedicated to a fictional artist colony located in Southeastern Idaho; it is a collection of creative works both about the colony and by the artists that inhabit it. It is an online representation of the fictional community device, an example of modern hypermedia literature that creates a new fictional genre by absorbing its predecessors and incorporating them into a forum that presents the user with an environment similar to virtual reality or Wagner's concept of "Total Artwork" (Housefield).
This critical appraisal of Planet Venison and its context is separated into four sections. The first will establish a working understanding of the fictional community device, primarily through analysis of some of the various texts that have used it in the past. The gradual evolution of the device from traditional literature through to more modern fictional media will provide a context for Planet Venison's use of the fictional community via the World Wide Web. The second section of the paper will examine the events that culminated in the development of the site itself, from early childhood influences through to my web design training at the University of Utah. The third section will interpret Planet Venison in its current condition. Characters and site pages will be illustrated, the promotion of the site will be interpreted, and the placement of the project as satirical hypermedia fiction will be explored. The final section of the paper will speculate as to how Planet Venison might evolve. The web site itself is included on compact disc in an appendix following the bibliography of the paper.
THE FICTIONAL COMMUNITY
In the fictional communities found throughout various genres, multiple stories and multiple characters are given equal importance, and ultimately the protagonist becomes the community the characters live in or whatever unifying characteristic brings their stories together. It is the community of Lake Wobegon. It is the town of Winesburg, Ohio, or Green Town, Illinois. It is "American Graffiti's" graduating class of 1963. Each collective may have a common narrator, a Doug Spaulding or a George Willard, but in most cases this character is little more than an observer, a link to an independent story that paints one more side of a greater whole. The best way to define the fictional community device is to analyze its various manifestations in different fictional genres. There are plentiful examples to be found within the canon of traditional literature, with Winesburg, Ohio, Dandelion Wine, and Lake Wobegon Days being some of the most obvious.
Winesburg, Ohio, written by Sherwood Anderson near the turn of the 20th century, tells the story of the small-town community of the same name through the individual stories of its residents. It is a collection of personal narratives, or, according to Ray Lewis White, "grotesques," often related through a local news reporter named George Willard (Anderson 3). Willard is the closest thing to a human protagonist the novel has, and indeed, by the end of the book it is his character that evolves and eventually leaves Winesburg for "a great unnamed city" (4). But the story of George Willard is essentially a skeleton on which to hang the more important function of Winesburg, which is to illustrate small town Midwestern life at the turn of the 20th century.
Dandelion Wine follows a similar pattern. Here Douglas Spaulding is the human protagonist, a twelve-year-old boy in Ray Bradbury's fictional Green Town, Illinois. Through both his personal adventures and the experiences of the other town residents, the characters of Bradbury's novel learn to deal with "the problems of how to achieve happiness in life, how to deal with age and change, and how to face death" (Reid 67). Dandelion Wine is considered to be one of many of Bradbury's "autobiographical fantasies" (63), and Spaulding can easily be identified as the young author incarnate. Yet the purpose of Dandelion Wine extends beyond the function of telling Bradbury's story; instead, like Winesburg, it becomes a representation of small town Midwestern life, this time in the 1920's. The community is the true, albeit abstract, protagonist.
Nowhere does a community take center stage as completely as in Garrison Keillor's Lake Wobegon Days, which could be the most complex example of the fictional community. Keillor's wit and distinctive style have earned significant attention over the years. Time Magazine described the novel, based on a concept generated through Keillor's "Prairie Home Companion" radio shows, as "a pack of beguiling lies that [ ] is the publishing sleeper of the year" (qtd. in Scholl 102). Keillor's exercise in town creation is expansive, detailing countless elements of town history and context. Keillor examines nearly every available aspect of small town life, from religion to education to social clubs, and creates extensive back-stories for each. His own description of the book is "a collection of pieces which are trying to make themselves into a novel" (qtd. in Lee 94). Keillor also uses an autobiographical protagonist to act as narrator for much of the book, but it would be foolhardy to suggest that Lake Wobegon's protagonist is anything but the town itself.
Like Winesburg and Green Town, Lake Wobegon is a representation of American small town life, but it "debunks the same sentimentality and nostalgia that it evokes" (Lee 92). The innovations inherent in the novel's structure are an effort to balance Lake Wobegon's function as both "a satire on the simpleminded idealization of the American small-town and rural values," and "a further contribution to the sentimental local-color tradition" (Scholl 108). Where Bradbury mostly emphasizes childhood wonder and idealism, whether through a "happiness machine" or "Cream-Sponge Para Litefoot Shoes" (Bradbury 19), Keillor emphasizes idealism gone awry, such as the town's ill-fated "Living Flag" (Keillor 122).
Regardless of whether the intent is jest or nostalgia, the fictional community does not necessarily have to describe a small town. Catch-22 uses the device to tell the story of a bomber squadron in Italy during World War II. Joseph Heller also provides the reader with a central character, Yossarian, but the text takes pains to describe a myriad of characters whose overlapping lives and stories collaborate to paint a total picture, bitingly satirical, of the "insane bureaucratic war machine" (Blair and Hill 501). More importantly, Catch-22 also serves as an example of narrative experimentation that serves to bridge literature with several modern fictional genres, specifically the genre Planet Venison inhabits. While other literary texts use flashbacks to free the reader from a standard chronological story line, the concept of time in Catch-22 becomes completely fluid, moving back and forth so often that the reader is left with a static image rather than a chronological narrative.
Louise Erdrich's Love Medicine is another example of intersecting the fictional community with the narrative experimentation that so often seems to follow. Love Medicine chronicles two Native American families through multiple generations over a period of about 100 years. The individual stories are more linear and traditional than those of Heller's Catch-22 squadron, but often times Erdrich repeats the same stories from different points of view. In this way, the fictional community device enables the author to describe more than one side of a story, and the reader is given the responsibility of determining what is the likely "truth."
While the novel genre contains some of the most obvious examples of the fictional community, the device can be found in abundance elsewhere. Edgar Lee Masters executes a task similar to Anderson's Winesburg in The Spoon River Anthology. Instead of using a collection of short stories dictated to a newspaper reporter, Masters relates the story of his community with personal poems. His setting is a graveyard, and as the reader explores it, each voice from the past relates a personal narrative that, when brought together with its peers, creates a comprehensive identity of the community. John T. Flanagan attempts to encapsulate an understanding of Master's work in Edgar Lee Masters: The Spoon River Poet and his Critics:
It was perhaps a portrait gallery in the tradition of the seventeenth century
characters; it was a series of intertwined short stories in verse; it was a sequence of remarkably compressed verse narratives, a novel in quasi-poetic form, possibly even an epic (Flanagan 21).
Regardless of what it was, Flanagan recognized that "the consensus was that Masters had done something genuinely creative, something which even at its inception would prove to be surprisingly influential" (21).
As our focus moves into the late 20th Century, fictional genres expand beyond printed texts and incorporate different visual and even aural elements, examples of the fictional community become more prevalent. Ray Davies, lead singer and songwriter for the British Invasion-era rock-and-roll band The Kinks, developed a fictional community that would portray an idealistic version of small town life in England that Davies was afraid was disappearing. His collection of stories are told through the individual songs that comprise the Kink's 1969 release, "The Village Green Preservation Society." Several of the songs outline specific characters in the community, such as "Do You Remember Walter?" and "Wicked Annabella," and the title track sounds an anthem for the entire work:
We are the Village Green Preservation Society,
God save Donald Duck, Vaudeville and Variety.
Preserving the old ways from being abused,
Protecting the new ways for me and for you,
What more can we do? (The Kinks).
The comic strip is a fictional medium that incorporates both text and visual art. While strips such as "Garfield" or "Ziggy" have stayed with central protagonist characters throughout years of sustained success, other cartoonists have found the opportunity to trace the lives of an ensemble of characters. Strips such as "Bloom County" and "Peanuts" are good examples of these ensemble comics. One of the best examples of the fictional community device as translated by the comic lens is the Pulitzer Prize-winning strip "Doonesbury," which cartoonist Garry Trudeau initially located at Duke University, then later at a hippie commune called Walden Commune (Blair and Hill 511).
Planet Venison also owes a debt to television, where its nearest relative is Matt Groenig's "The Simpsons." While "The Simpsons" is primarily centered around the exploits and misadventures of the family named in the title, the continued success of the animated series has allowed its creators to develop an entire community of supporting characters that inhabit their home of Springfield (not to mention a merchandising scheme of official apparel, toys, and board games that has expanded "The Simpsons" into many facets of day-to-day life). Springfield itself is a deliberately metaphorical community, as the creators have intentionally neglected to ever place the town in any specific state in the Union. This fact has become a running gag to longtime followers of the show, but it also serves to reinforce the point that the program is meant to be a universal example of the small-town community, a palatable forum for the social satire the series employs.
More than any other medium, film has been the greatest influence on my development of Planet Venison, and I will demonstrate later how "Star Wars" was the most inspirational of these films. But George Lucas's film trilogy doesn't qualify as an example of the device in the purest sense. Neither does its present day competition, Peter Jackson's film adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkein's Lord of the Rings trilogy. While both works extensively create their own characters, races, social systems, and, in some cases, languages, their core existence is that of a single-strand narrative, a story focused on a single protagonist with a single task to accomplish. For "Star Wars," it is the redemption of Darth Vader, as told through the coming of age of his son, Luke Skywalker. For "Lord of the Rings," it is Frodo Baggins' epic quest to destroy the "One Ring" in the fires of Mount Doom. In both cases, peripheral characters and stories are present, but always defer to the quest of the protagonist.
Basic screenwriting theory typically discourages using such a narrative device as the fictional community. This theory emphasizes the concept of a three-act structure, centered on one primary situation or task that needs to be resolved by the end of the film. "In the First Act you get your man up a tree," says entertainment veteran George M. Cohan, summarizing this theory, "In the Second Act throw stones at him. In the Third Act get him down out of the tree" (qtd. in Root 2). George Polti wrote a book insisting that there are no more than thirty-six of these dramatic situations, including standards like the "tragic flaw" or "eternal love" story (Root 93-95).
The tension created by the conflicts encountered in the attempt to accomplish this task drives the audience's interest in the film. Screenwriter Wells Root acknowledges that it is not mandatory to have only a single protagonist "up the tree," but the theory still promotes the idea of focusing on a single story line (Root 4). Such a linear focus discourages the notion of translating a work like Winesburg, Ohio, or The Spoon River Anthology directly into film. The prospect of holding an audience's attention with a series of unconnected vignettes is a daunting one. Some daring attempts to do so have reinforced this point; while appreciated by small groups of film aficionados, films such as 1993's "Short Cuts" tend to struggle before mainstream audiences.
Nevertheless, in certain cases the fictional community can and has succeeded within mainstream film. "Star Wars" may not fit the fictional community formula to the letter, but George Lucas's 1973 nostalgia opus "American Graffiti," an homage to the hot-rod culture of his youth, directly applies the ensemble narrative approach to a traditional film successfully. When Lucas originally pitched his idea about telling the story of the last night of summer 1962 through the individual stories of his ensemble cast members, several studios turned him away. The notion of telling four separate stories in a feature film was perceived as too dangerous ("Making of American Graffiti"). But finally Lucas was able to secure a minimal budget from Universal Studios, and "American Graffiti" broke new cinematic ground for mainstream filmmakers.
The cited examples are but a few of the works and genres that make use of the fictional community device. The Internet, a relatively new and startlingly unique format for creative expression, lends itself especially well to the fictional community device. The use of multiple pages and non-linear narrative paths is optimal for a creative project built from a collection of smaller narratives. Planet Venison demonstrates the possibilities of marrying this traditional narrative device with the World Wide Web.
PLANET VENISON: PAST
Like thousands of other boys my age, I grew up thinking I was Han Solo. The first "Star Wars" film was released six months after I was born, in May of 1977, and it provided the creative crucible for the first ten years of my life. One of my most vivid childhood memories was waiting in line in the Century Theaters parking lot to see the third and final installment of the original "Star Wars" trilogy, "Return of the Jedi." The excitement I felt was born of the opportunity to re-enter an imaginary world that had been pieced together through a combination of film, music, merchandising, and the imagination of many of the individuals that had crossed paths with it over the previous six years.
More than an image on a screen, "Star Wars" gave me the inspiration and the toolbox to create my own worlds. Lucas proposes that the ultimate purpose of his creation was to give children "a sense of values, to give them a strong mythological fantasy life" (qtd. in Baxter 164). The mythical analysis of Joseph Campbell provided the source for much of this mythology, and Lucas even came to be close friends with Campbell in later years, even referring to him as "my Yoda" (Baxter 354). Planet Venison is my "Star Wars," at least in embryonic form. The Planet Venison web site grew out of a project I was involved in during the spring of 2000, an online venue for independent artists to promote their graphic portfolios. The communal site never lasted beyond its prototype incarnation, but soon after graduation I decided that an online portfolio would be something I could use when travelling back and forth to different advertising and graphic-design job interviews. Rather than lug around a massive portfolio containing the original versions of my artwork, I would instead give the interviewer a web address.
By the time I bought my own corner of the World Wide Web, the idea of creating a simple online portfolio felt less appealing. For one, I thought the notion of a typical "Hi, my name is so-and-so, click here for illustrations," web site was far too boring. Secondly, I hoped that an impressively creative context might distract the viewer from weak illustration content. Instead of exclusively leaning on my skills as a graphic designer, I hoped to impress employers with a wide range of skills, such as writing or campaign strategizing. So I built my web site as a tribute page to a fictional artist named Venison Skidmore.
The Venison Skidmore character didn't come to life until the launch of his web site (www.vskid.org), but the name had been bouncing around my notebooks for six years or so. The exact source of the name escapes my memory, though I do suspect it came from the term's inclusion in many of the Gary Larson "Far Side" comic collections I had spent my childhood reading. Since I had only eaten venison once in my life, this was the closest conclusion I could come to. The "Skidmore" surname simply completed a suitable rhythm.
Making the site a tribute allowed me to expand beyond typical creative artwork and writing, such as short stories, poetry or drawings. Vskid.org was a home for my traditional creative work, but it was also a source of it on its own. With the new theme I could also employ my skills in developing the history of the character through profile sketches, faux interviews, and a collection of photos doctored to show his life story.
This early version of Venison Skidmore was little more than a Woody Allen-influenced character that had his name affixed to my own creative work. From my High School years on, the prose of Woody Allen had made a profound impact on my writing style, and the development of Skidmore himself owes a nod to Allen's 1983 comic mockumentary "Zelig," which traces the life and exploits of a fictional character with connections to various historical movements. (Skidmore's presence in Central America on the current edition of Planet Venison is a salute to the first story of Allen's I read: "Viva Vargas.") The one constant theme was the idea of an impassioned artist that longed to break out of the routine responsibilities (and career options) of modern society. This theme was clearly a reflection of the sentiments of its creator.
In time, the concept of a single-artist tribute felt limiting, and in the spring of 2002, Venison was given the reins of an entire colony of like-minded artists. Now, rather than a site of works attributed solely to Venison, the body of work was steadily doled out to a variety of eccentric characters, many of which were inspired by photographs I had located in the San Francisco Public Library archives. The photos there came with an inherent quirkiness that provided a fell of absurdity that Planet Venison needed.
The new venture (titled planetvenison.com, since venisonworld.com was taken by a company that was actually working the national venison market) was located in an undisclosed Southeastern Idaho location. Though the specific location was undisclosed, its placement in southeastern Idaho was completely intentional. A childhood of vacations to Yellowstone National Park and numerous drives across scenic Highway 32 at the foot of the Grand Teton range made the area the ideal location for my colony of artists. Southeastern Idaho had long been a second home to me, and it seemed natural to create utopia right in the middle of my childhood refuge.
For the new site, instead of grouping individual pieces by genre, creative works were located in fictional community establishments. The artwork was found in the local art gallery (the Kung-Fu Gallery of Fine Art), the play scripts were posted at the theatre (the Theatre of the Absurd), and the short stories and poetry could be found at the local watering hole (The Soulbones Café, named after my earlier University of Utah project). Each of these small town venues was given a subdirectory in the site and a graphic look of its own. The thesis-edition of Planet Venison is a refined version of this same concept.
PLANET VENISON: PRESENT
The easiest way to classify the Planet Venison web site would be to label it under the category of hypermedia fiction. It is indeed an intersection of multiple media (film, sound, image, and text), it is fictional, and it is reader-driven. But while the label seems to fit well enough, Planet Venison does not seem to fit well with its hypermedia fiction peers. A search for hypermedia fiction on the Internet inevitably directs the user towards the (relatively) more traditional genre of hypertext fiction, a genre that Planet Venison does not fit at all. Hyperizons (contained within the University of Duke web site) and The New River are popular libraries for hypermedia and hypertext works and criticism. Most hypertext examples (the qualifier "most" is used almost in frustration at the seemingly endless scores of disorganized online examples) are focused on one story. A user is typically confronted with an introductory paragraph that contains half a dozen or so hyperlinks within the text. Clicking on a link might lead you to another group of paragraphs, or in some cases, a poem, that is somehow connected to the word you linked from. The hypertext classification gives users the freedom to vary the narrative order, and to construct multiple story lines, but the story still tends to center around one specific narrative. Some examples of hypermedia, such as Adrian Miles' " Homage Somewhere" from the New River catalogue, add elements of background film and animation to these stories (many are completely constructed as Flash movies), but distinctive elements of the fictional community, primarily the multiplicity of voices and characters, are not found.
George P. Landow is one of the foremost theorists on hypertext. In his book Hypertext: The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology, Landow examines, among other things, the impact of the hypertext form on traditional narrative. His starting point is the structural theory of Aristotle, who asserts that, "a well-constructed Plot, therefore, cannot either begin or end at any point one likes" (qtd. in Landow 101). Hypertext challenges this assertion, frustrating the notion that a narrative must have a set beginning, middle, or end. Landow examines the typical perspectives of criticism on hypertext, asserting that theorists either attempt to identify a historic precedent to the form (often using texts such as Ulysses, Tristram Shandy, or, as I have suggested earlier, Catch-22) or have approached it from its "defining characteristics, [ ] particularly its tendency to marry the visual and the verbal" (Landow 102-3).
Tristram Shandy is certainly eligible to be considered a progenitor of hypertext-- in fact, it was converted into a hypertext edition in 1997 (Tristram Shandy Online). Upon its publishing, Tristram Shandy was often criticized for its fragmentary style. Staintsbury called the work "a rigmarole" (qtd. in Fluchere 30), and E. M. Forster declared it a "Muddle," adding, "if by chance [author Laurence Sterne] encounters any order he deliberately kicks it to pieces" (qtd. in Fluchere 30). Contemporary criticism has come to appreciate this disorder (31), and Landow feels that many of those that use Tristram and its peers to create a historic precedent to hypertext do so to make the new form seem less threatening to traditional narrative (Landow 103). But Landow asserts the contrary: "one should feel threatened by hypertext, [ ] descendants, after all, offer continuity with the past, but only at the cost of replacing it" (103).
The second approach, which emphasizes the unique qualities of hypertext, adds insights that can be applied to Planet Venison. Robert Coover explains that, in a hypertext "encounter," "the reader may now choose the route in the labyrinth she or he wishes to take, following some particular character, for example, or an image, an action, and so on" (qtd. in Landow 105). The Planet Venison "visitor" is free to choose his or her own route through the web site, but the experience is not quite identical to that provided in other hypertext projects. One major discrepancy between Planet Venison and its online peers is its explicit nature. The cumulative effect of many hypertext/media projects is to create a decidedly abstract, essentially free-flowing narrative. The pieces cultivate an impressionistic product, to be interpreted by the user. But Planet Venison is explicit in its self-explanation and organization. The reason for this lies in the fact that the Planet Venison web site is at root a satire of the motivations behind idealized communities and a parody of a mainstream company web site. This classification puts the site more in league with other satirical sites, most notably the hypertext edition of the satirical newspaper The Onion. In fact, Planet Venison has its own incarnation of The Onion, dubbed The Full Moon. Yet Planet Venison still exceeds the reach of this close relative by expanding the concept of a fictional newspaper and creating the entire community and history behind the paper.
The satiric element of the project is very much its heart. Planet Venison is indeed "conscious of the frailty of institutions of human devising" (Holman 398). The roots of satire can be traced to Aristotle, who points out that in his day, "graver spirits imitated noble actions," and the "more trivial sort imitated the actions of meaner persons, at first composing satires" (qtd. in Elliot 148-49). From there, says Robert C. Elliot, "the lampooners became writers of comedy, and the Epic poets writers of Tragedy" (Elliot 149). Satirists are often regarded as angry cynics. One of today's foremost satirists, Kurt Vonnegut, is a self-described "total pessimist" (Vonnegut 161). Elliot also feels that the satirist feels constantly compelled to justify his actions to others, repeatedly making formal or informal "apologies" in verse or prose (Elliot 153). He asserts that the satirist "usually claims that he does not attack institutions, he attacks perversions of institutions" (153). Often the satirist himself becomes the object of criticism more so than the work he/she produces, as with Jonathan Swift (Kernan 165). Satire has been defined by John Dryden as "a kind of poetry [ ] invented for the purging of our minds; in which human vices, ignorance, and errors, and all things besides [ ] are severely reprehended" (qtd. in Clark 3). To Alvin B. Kernan, "satire is synonymous with attack" (Kernan 167). While some Planet Venison content, particularly that of the Full Moon newsletter, could be considered what Holman defines as Juvenalian (biting, angry) satire, most of the work would have to be considered Horatian satire--lighter, less critical, and more directed at laughing at one's own foibles rather than shaming others into guilty reformation (399). John R. Clark indicates that the "satirist is keenly perceptive of irony affecting himself," and suggest that "the satirist's greatest burlesques and parodies poke fun at himself" (Clark 22). Indeed, the mission of Planet Venison is to provide both perspective and an opportunity to laugh not only at its tenants, but at ourselves. It more resembles the definition of parody, in the words of J. G. Reiwald, a "humorous and aesthetically satisfying composition in prose or verse, usually written without malice" (qtd. in Clark 44).
In some ways, Planet Venison represents an extreme form of satire. Kernan claims that satire is traditionally "fragmentary," apt to "pass rapidly from one subject to another" (Kernan 179). This tendency is read as either indicative of the author's unwillingness to thoroughly examine a subject, or an intentional effort to portray pessimistic "continuous movement that never brings about change" (179). Even if Planet Venison takes a more Horatian attitude towards its satire, its disjointed web identity does represent an interesting wrinkle to Kernan's "fragment" theory.
Planet Venison also bears a resemblance to popular humor sites such as JoeCartoon.com and Homestarrunner.com. Each of these sites features a continually updated catalog of brief animated cartoons that often feature a consistent cast of characters. This consistency supports the notion that they too might be considered examples of the fictional community. But since these forums specialize exclusively in cartoons, they can still only be considered one element that would be contained within Planet Venison's fictional umbrella. Plus the comedy found on these sites seems to point less at satire and more towards plain silliness.
The site most similar to Planet Venison is the official site of the "Simpsons" television show. The home page, like Planet Venison, displays a cartoon map of the community, and both sites feature biographical sketches of some of their primary characters. Both sites feature "sales pitches." It could be easily argued that the "Simpsons" site is nothing more than an online sales pitch for the television show and all of its related merchandise. Planet Venison is presented as a sales pitch for a fictional artist colony. It would be accurate, then, to assert that Planet Venison is a parody of the type of merchandising strategies the Internet offers. Ironically, Planet Venison becomes a parody of a parody, though since Planet Venison contains a host of works that are of themselves unrelated to the site's "story," this classification can only be considered one of its many conceptual functions.
Planet Venison is a convergent umbrella for numerous other fictional genres, both traditional and modern. The site contains both free verse and formal poetry, short story texts, opinion columns, news stories, cartoons, animation, freehand artwork, short film clips, stage play scripts, screenplays, and even promotional poster artwork. Instead of merely providing a framework for these sub-items, it weaves them into a story through the use of non-traditional fiction sources: photo essays with accompanying quotes, fictional "letters to the editor," and political manifestos, to name a few.
Together, this combination of traditional genres and creative hypertext creates an unusual narrative form. Taken as a whole, the entire site tells a story. Much in the same way that a user would browse a company web site to learn its "story," the Planet Venison visitor pieces together a fictional reality through their own browsing selections. Dr. Mark Zachry of Utah State University recently examined the new forms of communication that arise through modern networks. He indicated that many companies monitor the usage of their web sites, collecting the data that user browsing patterns generates to create a customized interest fingerprint for their customers (Zachry). By linking to certain topics, say, men's outdoor wear on a sporting goods site, the user sends a message to the company that indicates an interest in men's outdoor clothing. In the same way, visitors to Planet Venison create their own stories based on the links they visit. The user is responsible for creating the total Planet Venison story.
The concept of user-side creation is not unique to Planet Venison. The popular "Sim City" video games present an interesting comparison to the Planet Venison concept. The games lead the user to construct entire communities from a series of provided options, not in a narrative sense, like Planet Venison, but in more of a "virtual reality" sense. Planet Venison does not give the user options as to what narrative blocks to use, it merely allows them choose from the pre-written blocks to construct as much or as little of the "total Planet Venison story" as they wish.
The "total Planet Venison story" is an intersection of text, visual and sound. Composer Richard Wagner aspired to create an experience that would be a "fusion of the arts," feeling that "music, theater, dance, and all the arts could best progress and play a role in improving the world if they came together" (Housefield 1). His drive to create "the total work of art," or "Gesamtkunstwerk" (Housefield), closely mirrors the experience I had as a child with the environment of "Star Wars." "Star Wars" did more than tell an entertaining story; it provided an artificial environment for my own inventive mind to create my own stories within. Its combination of the visual, textual, and aural were equally important to the creation of this environment, just as they were in Wagner's efforts. His desire to move the audience beyond a single sensory experience parallels my own motive to tell a story with more than a single poem, lyric, or narrative; Planet Venison strives to be a "total work of art."
The Planet Venison site that was completed for my graduate thesis represents one self-contained hypermedia "story." Subsequent sites will be constructed independently, and will be set in various times in the future. In this way, each separate site becomes an "episode" in a sort of "Planet Venison Anthology." The individual site becomes the Internet equivalent to a videotape, compact disc, or book.
Given the vastness of the Internet, it would be grossly presumptive to suggest that any particular web site is unique. But at this point, it is very difficult to completely identify any single category for Planet Venison. It seems to inhabit a fictional genre of its own, or, if not an entire genre, at least an exclusive niche in the "Satirical Hypermedia Fiction" genre. The term genre is used "to designate the distinct types or categories into which literary works are grouped according to form or technique or, sometimes, subject matter" (Holman 199). Typical literary genres include poems, short stories, and novels (199). But they also include subcategories: detective novels, romance novels, historical fiction novels, and so on (200). Genre theorists have questioned, "are genres really 'out there' in the world, or are they merely the constructions of analysts? Is there a finite taxonomy of genres or are they in principle infinite" (qtd. in Chandler). Planet Venison is not a short story, but it contains them. It is not a poem, but poems are used to construct it. It may share similarities with other web sites, but the web site is the medium, not the genre; it is 1's and 0's. Whatever the name, Planet Venison appears to belong to a new genre communicated through the medium of the World Wide Web.
Again, the easiest venture would be to declare Planet Venison a piece of Hypermedia Literature, albeit an entry quite unlike the bulk of the Hypermedia Literature "mainstream," if such a thing exists. As such, it is my admittedly daring opinion that Planet Venison may in fact constitute a new genre of fiction, if for no other reason than that it doesn't seem to fit anywhere else.
The Planet Venison web site is presented as a self-contained html document (archived on compact disc). It is structured with a homepage and several subcategory pages, each of which represents an establishment in the colony.
The Planet Venison homepage features a bird's-eye-view map menu, with each of its major divisions represented visually on a city layout. Each visual representation links the user to the associated subcategory on the site.
While much of the site is constructed with actual theory in mind, one consistent theme of the site is what I call "idealized incompetence." Rather than represent the "cutting-edge" of artistic movements in any of the represented media, Planet Venison is a haven for misfits who are unable to connect with their former environments. Its founder, Venison Skidmore, is essentially an untrained artist with little or no authority to execute the project his fortunes have enabled him to create. His situation could be compared to Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban--a fan who, through sudden wealth, has been able to live out the dream of owning an NBA franchise. Cuban's guidance of his NBA team has proven to be both successful and unorthodox by typical league standards. While innovative, well intentioned and enthusiastic, Venison's aspirations and intentions could hardly be considered realistic, and this flaw is represented throughout the site.
A DJ character named Maurice "Mo" Kaufmann acts as an omniscient tour guide for the viewer, essentially combining Wolfman Jack and the Russian Trader from Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. Besides popping up on each of the individual Planet Venison "zones" with an expository introduction (combining an audio file and printed text), this DJ also provides the official "sales pitch" for the site.
The Mothership is the headquarters of Planet Venison and is home to information about the colony itself. The site includes a brief overview of the history of the colony and a page for those interested in joining the Planet Venison fan club. It features a welcome and official manifesto from the colony's acting "potentate," Darlene "Mama" O'Shea. The Mothership also features a feedback page, where visitors can both send their own comments and view the "feedback" of others. (Most items of feedback are self-generated parody.)
The Full Moon
The Full Moon is the official newspaper/letter of Planet Venison. Primarily a venue to display journalism-related writing samples, the Full Moon features assorted news stories (local, national, world), editorials, columns, letters to the editor, and various traditional newspaper elements. More than a knock-off of The Onion, the Full Moon also serves the purpose of providing most of the context of day-to-day Planet Venison life.
This section of the web site is primarily associated with the advertising role of the project, essentially a series of personal sales pitches designed, in the world of Planet Venison, to attract fellow artists, and in the narrative world, to sketch out some of the characters that inhabit the colony. Several featured artists have short biographies and testimonials. Whenever the user clicks on a "meet the featured artist" in any of the other Planet Venison zones, they are brought to one of these corresponding bios. This section also includes a photo essay or "virtual tour" of life at the colony.
House of Venison
Here the public meets the founder of the colony itself: Venison Skidmore. This part of the site features an extensive biography and photo history of the character, as well as brief anecdotal stories collected from "friends and family." Here the reader gains insight into a character that in many ways represents the alter ego of his creator and embodies the frustrations of countless idealistic artists. As much as Venison is revered by the colony and its web site, no evidence can be found of his own artwork; he has been confined to the role of providing the forum for others.
The Soulbones Café is the local Beatnik bar for the patrons of Planet Venison and the depository for the site's traditional short fiction, poetry, and essays. These pieces are attributed to various "featured artists" that appear on the site with corresponding biographies of their own. As the Soulbones Café also features a house band, the page provides a short original music clip as well.
Theatre of the Absurd
The Theatre of the Absurd features examples of my short plays and screenplays. Featured artists are again profiled, and "coming attractions" posters advertise each of the written works. A short movie trailer for a featured film is also accessible through the site.
Kung Fu Art Gallery
The Kung-Fu Art Gallery showcases the artwork for one featured artist, who is also profiled. In addition, each of the gallery pieces presented includes a brief "background and interpretation" summary from the "artist." All featured artists, whether from the Kung-Fu Gallery, the Soulbones Café or the Theatre of the Absurd, are profiled as representative of the greater fictional misfit population of the colony.
Throughout the site, each major subdirectory home page (Full Moon, Mothership, etc.) features a "pop-up" advertisement for one of the fictional sponsors of the colony. These ads contribute to the satirical "community for sale" theme of the site.
Mike Dubek Home Page
Various hidden links throughout the site connect the user to the vigilante home page of the Planet Venison antagonist, Skidmore's disgruntled ex-bandmate, Mike Dubek. Dubek has made his presence known by hacking into the colony web site and leaving his mark in various hidden (and not-so-hidden) places throughout the site. Besides playing the mythic role of arch-nemesis bad guy for the greater Venison story, as well as that of "doomsday prophet" in regard to computer-aided artwork, Dubek also embodies a parody on computer hacking and web site vandalism. The "booby trap" links Dubek has placed in the site lead to a home page, where a manifesto declares his personal vendetta and mission to destroy Planet Venison.
In some ways, Planet Venison is a living online embodiment of the American Studies discipline. Whereas American Studies began as a study of America and grew outwards to look at the various peripheral influences that are contributors to it, Planet Venison is a collection of genres, stories, and backgrounds that merge to form a collective identity. And just as American Studies tends nowadays to emphasize marginalized communities, Planet Venison represents a collection of oddball artists and social rejects who have assembled in what they believe to be an idealized utopia, but what will ultimately culminate in a satirical monument to fetching incompetence. Their identities have marginalized them, but their hearts create a universal appeal.
The most accurate genealogical tree for Planet Venison would have to use "Doonesbury's" hippie commune as its comic progenitor. Both are works of satire aimed at both the "establishment" and "communal impulses," and both feature characters who seem totally incapable of achieving their idealistic goals (Blair and Hill 513). "Doonesbury's" namesake, Michael J. Doonesbury, is described by Walter Blair and Hamlin Hill as a "born loser," who, along with his progressive-minded comrades, faces "a system so formidable and so indifferent to their social impulses that it can afford to ignore their calls for reform" (514). And while several of the Planet Venison residents do achieve a certain degree of success, the entire colony is typified by a general idealized incompetence, its founder being the worst offender of all.
Mike Dubek is easily one of the most compelling of the Planet Venison characters, one that enjoys considerably more depth and character development than his peers. Mostly this is due to the importance of the character and his role as arch-nemesis to Skidmore himself. The Mike Dubek character was born from an ambiguous name that was used on office greeting cards while I worked as a Cartographic Aid at the Natural Resources Conservation Service. I carried this prank on to an endless run of obligatory wedding reception appearances, where I would often sign the guest book as "Mike and Delores Dubek." The name was little more than a prank until I decided that if Venison Skidmore was to be a figure truly deserving of tribute, then he would have had to have made enemies along the path to greatness. After spending time as a drummer in several amateur "garage bands," my experience with "creative differences" prompted the idea that perhaps Venison offended a fellow bandmate during some stretch of time in the 1970's. This ex-bandmate, hurt and broken by the exchange, naturally swears eternal vengeance on his offender. Thus, Mike Dubek began his quest to destroy both Planet Venison and its founder. I gave Dubek a suitable base of operations, in Afton Wyoming, and charged him with the infiltration of Venison's web site, and through that, destruction of his idealized quest.
Currently, Dubek has more than a band slighting to motivate him. Dubek also represents a sort of Neo-Luddite attitude and protests the impurity Skidmore is perpetrating by integrating traditional fictional genres with something so unholy and soulless as the World Wide Web. Naturally, Dubek is still an artist, a purist at heart, and thus has the motivation to subvert and destroy Skidmore's progressive efforts. He could almost be considered a kindred spirit to Yale University professor Edward R. Tufte, who argues that computer software such as PowerPoint has created a dangerous and damaging emphasis on form over content (Konrad).
The expository commentary of Planet Venison's resident DJ, Maurice "Mo" Kaufmann, serves as both a unifying vehicle for the web site and a salute to the immortal rock-and-roll disc jockey Wolfman Jack. Each major section of the site offers both a textual and aural narrative/tour guide overview of the function of that section of the site. The DJ is also a nod to Joseph Conrad's African Trader in Heart of Darkness (as well as Dennis Hopper's hippie photographer in Francis Ford Coppola's "Apocalypse Now" adaptation of the book). This parallel is achieved through Kaufmann's almost fanatical devotion to Planet Venison's founder, the Kurtz of southeastern Idaho, Venison Skidmore.
As indicated earlier, Skidmore was initially used as the source for all of the creative work on the vskid.org tribute web site. The first edition of Planet Venison saw him pass over the creative rights to several of the site's pieces, as the site expanded to represent an entire colony rather than a single figure. But when the time arrived to put together the definitive thesis version of Planet Venison, I realized that it would be ideal to prevent Skidmore from contributing any creative material at all.
Obviously, since Skidmore has been acknowledged earlier as my alter ego, his plight at Planet Venison represents my personal artistic execution frustrations as well as those of the general population. Much like the protagonists of the films of Woody Allen, Skidmore often represents my perspective--philosophically, if not completely autobiographically. Allen himself notes his emphasis on the clash between reality and fantasy by revealing that, "I think what it boils down to, really, is that I hate reality" (Bjorkman 50). While this author claims more than his share of disdain for reality, Planet Venison hardly resembles a collection of fantastic delusions of grandeur. To a lesser degree, the character exercise also connects to Sherwood Anderson, who, after creating his newspaperman protagonist George Willard for Winesburg, Ohio, later decided to live the role himself as a newspaperman in Marion, Virginia. (Anderson 4)
Skidmore could be considered a hero, by Joseph Campbell's reasoning. "A hero is someone who has given his or her life to something bigger than oneself" (Campbell 123). Campbell goes on to indicate that
The usual hero adventure begins with someone from whom something has been taken, or who feels there's something lacking in the normal experiences available or permitted to the members of his society. This person then takes off on a series of adventures beyond the ordinary, either to recover what has been lost or to discover some life-giving elixir (123).
Yet Venison Skidmore is a tragic hero, doomed forever to the role of a provider for other people's artistic expression. Every single piece of artwork or text on the site is attributed to another source, and most of Planet Venison's social and organizational structure comes from outside hands as well. Ultimately, while Skidmore's noble intentions are certainly worthy of praise, his past and present incompetence indicate that in the end, Venison might best be described as an anti-hero. His ability to create artistic success only for others suggests that the message of Planet Venison may be that heroism lies not in accomplishing all of our aspirations, but in accepting what we've become in the process of striving for them.
Aside from the connection to the fictional "Springfield" of "The Simpsons," Planet Venison's self-advertising function serves to parody the phenomenon of community promotion that characterized real-life cities such as New Harmony, Indiana, and Hailey, Idaho. It lends a warm nod towards the "Octagon City" experiment of 1856 in the state of Kansas (Bird 68). Ray Bird's account of the Octagon City experiment in his collection "Kansas, Day by Day" describes the ill-fated, but of course, noble attempt by vegetarian Henry S. Clubb (perhaps another spiritual ancestor of Venison Skidmore) to lead a group of followers to build a community in rural Kansas. This community was to be engineered in the shape of an octagon, which they believed to be the ideal in architectural design (69). Harsh weather prompted the would-be settlers to re-migrate back to more traditionally engineered communities inside of a year (69). This aspect of Planet Venison also mirrors the plight of the fictional settlers and residents of Lake Wobegon. Both groups came seeking utopia via a "withdrawal from society into an idealized landscape" (Scholl 112), but in both cases, the settlement "didn't fulfill either their original expectations or their subsequent fantasies" (Lee 97).
The Planet Venison web site boasts a strong theme of self-promotion. It is tailored to be a piece of online propaganda designed to recruit potential artists/contributors. It is a reflection of the concept of Integrated Marketing Communications, wherein an organization's advertising, public relations, and marketing functions are integrated into a cohesive unit with a common theme and message. The Welcome Wagon division of the site features both a photo gallery tour of the colony and a manifesto stating the colony's "raison d'être." The Mothership gives the colony history and advertises its fan club. The Full Moon not only reports on local goings on, but intentionally seeks to highlight and promote local artists, events, and accomplishments. The whole effort is unified by the DJ, whose voiceover narratives physically and conceptually frame the entire site.
CONCLUSION: THE FUTURE OF PLANET VENISON
As I have hinted earlier, the immediate future of Planet Venison may lie in the creation of a series of "episode" sites. While that won't solve the problem of genre--perhaps the "problem" ought to remain unsolved--it will give an added element of narrative structure. It will also give the reader (and myself) the opportunity to watch the site itself evolve over time. This is an element profoundly lacking on the Internet currently. Very little archiving is done other than with the individual documents contained within the web site. But while the content may be preserved, the construction and graphic design of retired sites are condemned to vanish into anonymous cyber-history. Just as with comics like "Doonesbury" or television programs like "The Simpsons," Planet Venison will evolve to mirror the social issues of the day. However, future episodes of Planet Venison will not necessarily be placed in a "present day" timeframe. Tentative plans suggest that the next edition of Planet Venison race fifteen to twenty years in the future, and examine a post-apocalyptic world bereft of technology after a super-computer virus has wiped out the world wide mainframe. (The irony of using a web site to tell a story about a post-apocalyptic technology-absent world is not lost on the author. Nor is the idea that the source of the computer virus could be the random code accidentally generated by a Planet Venison resident as she struggles to send a quiche recipe via e-mail to a distant relative in Connecticut.) Of course, I could also follow the source of my childhood inspiration and make the next site a prequel. The back story of Venison Skidmore himself certainly begs for more exposition.
The long-term future of Planet Venison is considerably more difficult to speculate on. The rapid changes in technology suggest that ten years from now, Planet Venison could have the potential to become something else entirely. While immediate improvements might involve adding more elements of streaming video, audio, and general user interaction, long-term developments seem to be wide open. In some ways, Planet Venison suggests a connection to the concept of Virtual Reality, as it builds a fictional environment for the user as much as a story. My own expertise in the field is limited enough that I hesitate to speculate much beyond the simple mention of such possibilities, but the similarities, especially to popular video games such as the "Sim City" series, make further analysis a necessity. Critically speaking, I see a considerable amount of work ahead in regard to the theory and placement of the project. Much of the preceding examination has been at best a noble attempt to hit a moving target. The topics this paper has examined beg for more thorough research; indeed, there is ample material to provide for an individual thesis on many of the concepts discussed, such as genre invention, narrative structure, user interpretation, and even the concept of the fictional community itself. For the most part, both the function of and the ideal audience for Planet Venison remain a mystery. To draw from an oft-referenced creative mentor yet again, George Lucas himself is fond of saying that "films are never finished--they just escape" ("Making of Special Edition"). "The Genesis of Planet Venison" is far from a conclusive statement; it has only opened the door of speculation.
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WEB SHOTS OF PLANET VENISON
Planet Venison Home Page
The Full Moon
House of Venison
Theatre of the Absurd
Kung-Fu Gallery of Fine Art
Vandalized Thunderlips Page
Mike Dubek Home Page
PLANET VENISON WEB SITE