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Shawna Kidman

Associate Professor

I am an Associate Professor in the Department of Communication at UC San Diego, specializing in media industries. I write and teach about broadcast and cable history, streaming content and digital distribution, copyright law, media audiences, and contemporary issues related to pop culture and society.

My newly released history of the comic book industry explains why comics are ubiquitous in Hollywood, and how they came to take over corporate multimedia production of the 21st century. Covering 80 years of history, I show how many current trends in the media business—like transmedia storytelling, the cultivation of fans, niche distribution models, and creative financial structuring—have roots in the comic business. As a result, even though comic books themselves have a relatively minuscule audience, and have suffered declining sales for decades, the form and its marquee brands and characters continue to gain in global prominence and popularity.

Most of my research and teaching is about the media business and examines how corporate, legal, and financial systems shape our entertainment landscape. Using business and legal history, communication theory, and cultural studies, I work to contextualize and historicize media texts and practices. In looking at the structural interdependence of different media industries and different media cultures, my works takes a trans-industrial approach to the field of media studies.

I earned my Ph.D. in Media Studies at the University of Southern California, School of Cinematic Arts. Before that, I worked in the film and television business, primarily in development. As a television and film scholar with real-world working experience, I bring to UCSD a practical approach to media studies, but one deeply informed by history and theory. I bring this love of history and this dedication to analyzing material structures to all of my work, with the hope that more robust media education and scholarship will bring improvements to contemporary cultural production.

My research draws across multiple disciplines to expose the myriad ways in which industrial infrastructure actively and directly shapes media texts and the social practices that develop around them. Because the value of media tends to be cultural and social, and not generally utilitarian or physical, the infrastructures I examine tend to be less material and more human in nature. Communication systems of course rely on radio towers, data centers, and factory lines, but just as impactful are the ways in which everyday relationships between individuals take on particular patterns, abide by established protocols, and adhere to predetermined networks of communication. These human systems are the focus of my work. I investigate and analyze: particular regulatory acts and court rulings and the particular legal regimes that rise up around them; patterns of ownership and the corporate bureaucracies they organize; distribution networks and the demographic configurations and consumption habits they construct; and accounting practices and approaches to funding that determine what content makes it to the market, and what remains unseen and perhaps unmade.

For the last ten years, I have centered my research around the comic book industry. Although small, this business has played a central role in the transformation of the media landscape over the last thirty years. This has made it an ideal site of analysis in that it allows considerable attention to detail as well as an opportunity to weave in and out of a broader structural account to which it is integral. Furthermore, comic books are a fundamentally transmedial form. Not only have the stories and characters been expanding into other media from their very inception, but the industry itself has tended to traverse sectors in unruly ways, thriving in the spaces between other media businesses. These margins have been where many important transitions and exciting developments in media have originated, so doing trans-industrial analysis through comic books has proved to be an incredibly productive way with which to illuminate the media industries writ large. With my book in press in March 2019, I will continue investigating this space as the reach of comic books continues to expand in every corner of the globe, across every form of media in existence.

Peer-Reviewed Articles:

Shawna Kidman, "Self-Regulation Through Distribution: Censorship and the Comic Book Industry in 1954.” Velvet Light Trap 75 (Spring 2015): 21-37.

Shawna Kidman, “Five Lessons For New Media From the History of Comics Culture.” International Journal of Learning and Media. 3.4 (November 2012): 41-54.

Other Links:

Most college students, particularly those in the humanities and social sciences, can expect to work with digital communications in some form. While they can typically acquire technical skills on the job, it is a deeper and broader comprehension of the media landscape—in its past and present forms—that enable them to anticipate the future, and to excel personally and professionally. In my teaching, I work hard to facilitate that learning, so I frame coursework in relevant ways, create an atmosphere that encourages thoughtful learning and discussion, and challenge students to see beyond the limitations of their own social and cultural identities. I also work to provide students with functional knowledge they can use as practitioners in whatever field they choose; I address topics like intellectual property, fair use, free speech, and labor disputes. I not only teach students about the historical significance of these media institutions, but encourage them to become familiar with the practices that guide them today.

In taking a class with me, students can expect to develop a media literacy that is firmly grounded in a historical economic and social context that will enable them to become conscientious, critical consumers of media, and active, engaged citizens. What exactly does that mean? I ask my students how media texts came to be (in terms of financing, demographic targeting, and marketing), how they were received (critically acclaimed? controversial? popular? profitable?), and how they impacted culture (assessing their artistic legacy in addition to their effects on both the culture industries and social issues). I also emphasize the critical relevance of media history, encouraging connections across different media, and also between past and present. Through discussions and writing, we examine how industry, cultural values, and political and social institutions have changed and how they remain the same. My overall goal is to help students of every background and interest better understand the nature of their own media practices and to engage more thoughtfully in contemporary cultural debates.

For more on my courses and past syllabi please visit my website.

Comic Books Incorporated tells the story of the US comic book industry. In recent years, the medium has dominated the film and television landscape and has come to define contemporary corporate transmedia production. But before moving to the center of mainstream popular culture, comic books spent half a century wielding their influence from the margins and in-between spaces of the entertainment business.

This book argues that the best way to understand this dynamic and influential history is through political economic analysis and an examination of material details of production. This entails a focus on industrial infrastructure, and a closer look at aspects of our media environment that often lack public visibility--including distribution, copyright and contract law, organizational networks, and financing. An interest in the details of these systems yields a very different kind of narrative about what comic books are and how they came to be.

The story begins with the inception of comic book publishing in the 1930s, when comics were a reviled, disorganized, and lowbrow mass medium. Focusing on critical moments in the industry’s evolution—market crashes, corporate takeovers, upheavals in distribution, and financial transformations—it shows how industry structures and everyday business practices contained the medium's growth and gave it shape. The story ends in the early 2000s, once Hollywood had fully incorporated comic book properties and comic book strategies into its business models. Comic books had transformed into the heavily exploited, exceedingly corporate, and highly esteemed niche art form we know so well today.