I promise we’ll get back to superheroes in a minute. But first we need to know a couple of terms from literary theory.
The first term is paratext.
Roughly, paratext is the set of materials that surround the main text. The term originally referred to books, and included things like the cover, the foreword or afterword, footnotes, etc.
Paratexts also exist for things other than books. A movie trailer or poster counts. So do the director’s commentary on a DVD and all the publicity interviews given by the people affiliated with a film. So do box sets of television shows.
Paratexts don’t need to be official, either. Fan forums and recaps are paratexts, as are things like maps of Marvel’s NYC or charts showing which heroes have interacted.
The second term is transmedia storytelling.
This one is a little trickier, so I’m going to quote communications professor and television scholar Henry Jenkins:
Transmedia storytelling represents a process where integral elements of a fiction get dispersed systematically across multiple delivery channels for the purpose of creating a unified and coordinated entertainment experience. Ideally, each medium makes its own unique contribution to the unfolding of the story.
That’s a mouthful. But the upshot is that a transmedia story uses different channels to deliver different parts of the story. In practice, that ends up looking like, well … 18 movies, 10 television series, 5 short films, etc.
Transmedia storytelling might sound similar to a paratext, but there’s an important difference. A paratext (a trailer or a DVD commentary track) is typically about the story. Transmedia is a way of delivering part of the story.
Or, to borrow a more formal analysis from Jason Mittell’s fascinating book, Complex TV: The Poetics of Contemporary Television Storytelling, paratexts “function primarily to hype, promote, introduce, and discuss a text,” while transmedia storytelling uses multiple channels that “function as ongoing sites of narrative expansion.”
Paratext and transmedia storytelling also describe two approaches to research communications outputs.
It's the paratext model of research communications, and if we keep trying it, we're going to work ourselves into the ground.
You present ideas as text supplemented by a bit of multimedia content—this image with that paragraph, that table to break out the numbers in this other section. You build paths for readers to follow, and you construct those paths inside different products. Traditionally those included a report, an executive summary, a fact sheet, and a press release—probably in PDF. Your documents are linear and discrete: Each is meant to be read from front-to-back, and each is written is such a way as to completely stand on its own.
Some metadata—usually paratext—is arranged in the areas around the main text— in the margins to the left or right of the text, or in the header or footer areas above or below the text, respectively.