The notion of storyworlds – that is, “worlds provoked by narratives”1 – is not new to storytelling or narratology; even so, transmedia storytelling and media convergence have enabled more ways of understanding the dynamic between storytelling and world-building. As recognised by seminal transmedia studies scholar Henry Jenkins, “More and more, storytelling has become the art of world-building, as artists create compelling environments that cannot be fully explored or exhausted within a single work or even a single medium.”2 Similarly, Marie-Laurie Ryan and Jan-Noël Thon propose that using the term ‘storyworld’ in the study of contemporary narrative more productively recognises “the emergences of the concept of ‘world’ not only in narratology but also on the broader cultural scene.”3 Here Ryan and Thon identify a deliberate shift in how the role of ‘worlds’ is understood within storytelling, and thus propose a “media-conscious narratology” that accounts for transmediality and conceptualises “how media old and new give birth to different types of storyworlds.”4 The Australian science fiction/superhero storyworld of Cleverman offers a compelling perspective on this shift because its transmedial development, from television to a comic book, is not yet extensive but yet its narrative deliberately drives world-building; indeed, even before its extension from a television series to a comic book, season one of Cleverman was criticised by online commentator Brandon Nowalk for being “too busy building a world to tell a story.”5 Provoked by this review, this article examines the dynamic between world-building and storytelling in Cleverman and, in doing so, demonstrates how the storyworld activates the dimensions of world-building as a narrative strategy in itself.

Developed by Aboriginal Australian writer Ryan Griffen, the Cleverman storyworld is primarily realised across two seasons of the television series Cleverman, which is independently co-produced by Goalpost Pictures (Australia) and Pukeko Pictures (New Zealand), and co-distributed by Australian public-broadcast network ABC and US cable network Sundance TV; and the to-date single issue comic book, Cleverman, which is published by independent Australian comic book company Gestalt Comics, and was released to coincide with season two of the television series. The television series is named after the storyworld’s superhero protagonist, the Cleverman, who is a figure inspired by the superheroes of American comic books and conceived of as a contemporary realisation of Aboriginal Australian mythology and culture. The comic book, moreover, retains the title Cleverman even though there is, as yet, no appearance of the superhero protagonist in the diegesis – rather, the first issue focuses on locations and other inhabitants of the world. Even so, the Cleverman’s significance in the storyworld paratextually frames the comic book, revealing that this superhero figure is “the conduit between The Dreaming and the real world.”6 The Dreaming is the cultural worldview of Indigenous Australian peoples and “tells of the journey and the actions of Ancestral Beings who created the natural world.”7 Therefore, the comic book issue represents ‘the Cleverman’ as emblematic of the storyworld itself, and his heroism is thus defined by his responsibility as a spatiotemporal guardian of place and its mythology. Therefore, as a figure who occupies the interstice of mythology and the ‘real world,’ the Cleverman superhero embodies a ‘betweenness of worlds’ that serves to allegorically explore the mytho-cultural relationship between Australia’s Indigenous identity and its contemporary society. Moreover, in representing the Cleverman in this way, the comic book represents the television series’ protagonist as an interstitial dimension of world-building. Extending from this premise, this analysis focuses on the notion of ‘betweenness’ in the storyworld, in which its various narrative and aesthetic dimensions – related to character, media, genre and setting – work to deliberately enrich the interstices between the mythic and the real, through socio-political allegory, Aboriginal mythology and the superhero/science fiction genre.

Between Story and Worlds

The creation of imaginary worlds is a staple of the science fiction, fantasy and superhero genres that characterise the Cleverman storyworld; however, as Mark J.P. Wolf identifies, in the traditional study of narrative “imaginary worlds are occasionally considered tangentially […and] often when a world is noticed at all, it is only considered as a background for stories set in it, rather than a subject of study in itself.”8 This is also consistent with Jenkins’ assessment of how film criticism misunderstands the relationship between storytelling and world-building, particularly in relation to the fantasy and science fiction genres. As Jenkins identifies,

Most film critics are taught to think in terms of very traditional story structures. More and more, they are talking about a collapse of story-telling. We should be suspicious of such claims, since it is hard to imagine that the public has actually lost interest in stories. Stories are basic to all human cultures, the primary means by which we structure, share, and make sense of our common experiences. Rather, we are seeing the emergence of new story structures, which create complexity by expanding the range of narrative possibility rather than pursuing a single path with a beginning, middle, and end.9

Jenkins’ explication here can account for film critic Nowalk’s response to world-building and storytelling in Cleverman, while identifying how storyworlds facilitate and support new story structures through the expansion and enrichment of setting; Jenkins also refers to how these new story structures disrupt formal narrative expectations. Cleverman is thus a productive example of how world-driven narration encourages new ways of thinking about narrative because the merging of Indigenous storytelling with superhero fantasy and science fiction works to reimagine space and setting not only at the forefront of storytelling, but as a narrative dimension in itself.

The world of The Cleverman is centred on an unnamed Australian city in the near-future as it comes to terms with the revelation of an alternative humanoid species – called Hairypeople – who have lived alongside humans undetected for hundreds of years. The comic book describes Hairypeople as “creatures from ancient mythology:”10 they are strong, fast, covered in hair, and have sharp nails that can supposedly tear out human organs. The revelation of the Hairypeople has caused crisis in this world because humans fear their strength and lack understanding of their origins and intentions. Due to the emergence of Hairypeople, this new world is also faced with a housing crisis, and Hairypeople have been welcomed into the urban compound space called the Zone, which had traditionally been used as an impoverished haven for Aboriginal peoples. What is particularly significant about the relationship between humans and Hairypeople then is that the representation of humans encompasses a diversity of racial and cultural backgrounds, particularly Indigenous peoples. Kate Warner considers that the relationship between Indigenous peoples and the Hairypeople symbolises “an interaction between Aboriginal people and Aboriginal mythology or between Indigenous past and present.”11 This interaction between Aboriginal people and Indigenous mythology is explicitly embodied in the figure of the Cleverman, who is a man of knowledge in the community and has the responsibility of maintaining balance between the real world that people inhabit and the world of Aboriginal mythology.

The television series Cleverman depicts this world during the changeover of the Cleverman role, when Elder and former Cleverman Uncle Jimmy (Jack Charles) passes on the responsibility to the troubled young man, Koen West (Hunter Page-Lochard). Following a mostly traditional hero’s journey – characteristic of many stories in the superhero, fantasy and science fiction genres – Koen is at first reluctant and dismissive of his new role but eventually rises to the responsibility across the two seasons. Conforming to superhero conventions, the Cleverman wields the nulla nulla, an ancient fighting stick imbued with magical spirits; he also has abilities that include healing, strength, shapeshifting, pre and postcognition and the ability to rupture an individual’s spiritual access to the ancient world. As creator Griffen explains, in his role as conduit between worlds the Cleverman “is spiritually connected to both worlds … [and] the major gift of our superhero is he can see things that others can’t.”12 This describes the Cleverman’s ability to see across different worlds and spatiotemporal dimensions, and physically manifests in the changing of one eye colour from brown to blue, which is a consistent symbol of the Cleverman’s role in both worlds. Moreover, what is also compelling about the Cleverman’s connection to “both worlds” is that his character has both ‘story’ and ‘world’ significance as the superhero protagonist and as a interstitial conduit between the Dreaming and the ‘real world’.

Between (and Beyond) Media

As a narrative strategy, world-building is particularly compatible with the goal of ideal transmedia storytelling, which Jenkins seminally defines as when a “story unfolds across multiple media platforms, with each new text making a distinctive and valuable contribution to the whole.”13 Moreover, Anna Zaluczkowska adds that the most successful transmedia products “use more than three platforms” to realise a storyworld.14 Based on these definitions, the Cleverman storyworld is perhaps not yet transmedially extensive enough to rigorously engage with conventional theories and conceptions of ideal transmedia storytelling. However, Ryan and Thon’s “media-conscious narratology” encourages a view of storyworlds as “representations that transcend media,”15 which offers a more flexible framework for understanding the impact of transmediality in narratology. The notion of ‘transmedia in process’ thus extends from this framework to conceptualise how transmediality can extend and develop new ways of understanding the dynamics of narrative, setting, and media.

While the multimedia identity of the Cleverman storyworld is most explicitly characterised by the mediums of television and comic books, it is also multi-medial because its source material involves the adaptation of oral folk traditions from the Dreaming. As will be further detailed below, Griffen has discussed how realising the Cleverman storyworld involved a culturally sensitive adaptation process of negotiating the mythological protocols of Aboriginal culture with contemporary genre conventions.16 The unique interplay of these forms relates productively to Birgit Neumann and Martin Zierold’s conception of transmediality as a process of communicating cultural knowledge:

While ‘knowledge’ might refer to single utterances, cultural knowledge and concomitant processes of worldmaking always work on the basis of transmediality. Media typically build on or recycle earlier forms of worldmaking and in this way they can end up becoming collective points of reference. Revisions or remakes of earlier ways of worldmaking and the remediation of knowledge in new media also represent an important means of keeping earlier worlds ‘up to date.’17

Following this perspective, Cleverman is not only an example of ‘transmedia in process’ because its storyworld is potentially developing, but also because it facilitates cultural worldmaking by remediating orally-communicated Indigenous knowledge using contemporary media. While Cleverman is indeed realised in comic book form, it is the significance of comic books via the superhero genre that makes comics important to the dialogism of media in this storyworld. Griffen affectively recognises that “the passion of comic books blended together with 60,000 years of culture and history makes this something special.”18 What perhaps makes this most special is that, in adapting the stories of Indigenous folklore with the participation and advice of Aboriginal elders from across the country, the ancient tradition of oral storytelling works in productive dialogue with the contemporary tradition of comic book superheroes and the media platform of television.

The formal and narrational dynamics of television seriality, such as cliffhangers, narrative memory, character development and spatial expansion, facilitate the process of cultural transmediality in the Cleverman storyworld. Following Matthew Freeman – who states that “in transmedia storytelling, seriality henceforth emergences as a key component for extending narrative across borders”– seriality can be understood as a transmedial dynamic in the sense that it motions towards a world beyond one medium.19 As such, the television medium works productively for the aims of storytelling and cultural world-building in the Cleverman storyworld. As production designer Jacob Nash describes, the television series is “a story about the continuation of Aboriginal culture. It’s a contemporary Dreaming story told in 2017.”20 Television also distinctly presents the repetition of a title sequence, which is frequently deployed for world-building function and often evolves and changes in accordance with how the storyworld develops across multiple seasons. In the television series Cleverman, however, the title sequence remains the same across both seasons: it uses spatial motifs of the city setting alternating with Indigenous artwork and superimposed with close-ups of eyes to symbolise the Cleverman’s ability to see across mythologies and spaces (figures 1a and 1b). Also notable about this sequence is the visual motif of interstices and the way architecture is linearly composed in the frame as train lines characterise the Zone setting. The title sequence functions as a structural feature in the Cleverman television series, in the way Neumann and Zierold discuss the symbolic form of intermedial dynamics in individual media, discussed above.

Figure 1a: A shot from the title sequence used in both seasons of the Cleverman television series

Figure 1b: A shot from the title sequence used in both seasons of the Cleverman television series

Through this state of ‘transmedia in process,’ Cleverman implicitly engages intermedial and transmedial dynamics to infer a world that potentially extends beyond what is presented and experienced thus far. Neumann and Zierold’s notion of what constitutes transmediality, however, is not based on a conception of multiple media and strategic storytelling design, but on the process of cultural exchange through worldmaking, in which “it becomes possible to rethink worldmaking as a plural, open and necessarily contested process.”21 This is a perspective in which transmediality is not characterised by the quantity of media, but by transmedial dynamics that carry symbolic function within singular media. Writing about intermedial worldmaking, Neumann and Zierold contend that singular media can have worldmaking impact on a cultural level:

Individual media can make use of a whole range of structural features to create suggestive epistemic constellations and bolster their claim to cultural authority. Thus, the making of worlds is also about giving a symbolic form to what is constructed as a world, i.e. of narratively (or visually) structuring these representations and adding aesthetic value to them.22

Following this understanding, both the television series and the comic book issue function in this way: each individual media platform engages intermedia dynamics that work to suggest a bigger and more complex storyworld constellation.

Figure 2a: The Zone in the comic book Cleverman #1

The comic book is noteworthy because it visually enriches and structurally unifies the storyworld established and inferred in the television series, specifically with settings like the Zone (figure 2a) and Bindawu country (figure 2b); structurally, it is intermedial and paratextual because it works to inform, clarify, reinforce and unify the storyworld. This relates to Neumann and Zierold’s articulation of how “intermedial dynamics of cultural worldmaking contribute to the stabilisation and solidification of specific figures of knowledge, as well as to their symbolic forms of narrative (or iconic) structuring.”23 Following this, the comic book and the title sequence of the television series both function to symbolically stabilise knowledge in the storyworld. The comic book follows the story of Yulu, a Hairy living in the Zone who sneaks out to an underground fight club, the Pitt, to make money to support her son. In the Zone, Yulu meets Maliyan, who is also a Hairy and a recurring character of the television series. In addition to the Zone and Maliyan, the comic book issue includes multiple familiar characters and locations from across both seasons of the television series – Slade Industries, the Containment Authority and Jarli from the Bindawu Camp – with the exception of one major character: the Cleverman. In the comic book, The Cleverman features in a prologue that provides world-context, but he does not yet appear in the diegesis of the first issue. As such, in the comic book issue, the Cleverman takes on symbolic and stabilising world-building function beyond his role as a superhero protagonist. The phrase “Cleverman is more than just a title” is repeated across the television episode “Containment” (1:2), reflecting how he is more than a superhero character: Cleverman is the storyworld that occupies the interstice between the mythic and the real.

Figure 2b: Bindawu country in the comic book Cleverman #1

Between Spaces

Place and setting are inarguably fundamental to understanding the significance of Aboriginal storytelling in Cleverman, since displacement and colonisation have caused complex detrimental disruptions to Aboriginal identity and culture across Australia’s history; this is a historical and contemporary reality that Cleverman is aware of in the creation of its storyworld. Therefore, the connection between storytelling and place is also important to the process of reclamation and representation for Aboriginal people in contemporary Australian culture, in which Cleverman deliberately participates. As Felicity Ford recognises, “With episodes titled ‘Terra Nullius’ and ‘First Contact’, it is clear that Griffen is evoking traumatic memories from Australia’s past to provoke discussion about present-day relations and policies concerning Indigenous Australians.”24. In presenting a storyworld that explores the dynamic between the mythic and the real world, this is a setting that activates the ignored interstices of space in Aboriginal Australia’s history. In this context, the notion of interstitial world-building in Cleverman conceptualises how the building of a fictional world facilitates complex spatial openings for storytelling, aesthetic composition and mytho-cultural exploration to occur between spaces and settings. This also symbolises the disruption of place, which accounts for the historical disruptions to Aboriginal identity and culture; thus, Cleverman participates in the contemporary process of cultural reclamation by activating the potential of in-betweens and interstices in its depiction of a near-future Australian city.

In the television series, the urban setting is uncannily recognisable and also ambiguous: the series is filmed on location in Sydney, but the urban environment is both distinctly and indistinctly Sydney. Extreme long shots of the city skyline resist perspectives that are obviously Sydney, instead opting for urban crevices and viewpoints that take attention away from the spatial identity of any specific Australian city. This uncanny presentation of setting is reinforced by Griffen, who reveals that “we wanted to really shoot in Sydney without it feeling like Sydney.”25 This is obvious from the very opening of episode one, with an establishing shot of a generic city skyline: while a distinctly Sydney bus enters the frame, its symbols, route-destination and city-specific markers have been obscured in accordance with the genre expectations of the science fiction setting (figure 3). This is but one introductory example of how the mythic and the real intersect in a moment of aesthetic composition, since it depicts an urban space that can effectively represent any Australian city.

Figure 3: Opening shot of the first television episode “First Contact”, with a generic representation of the city setting and the uncanny depiction of a Sydney bus

As an aesthetic strategy, world-building is reinforced and strengthened through production design; as Jenkins has noticed, “as the art of world-making becomes more advanced, art direction takes on a more central role.”26 In the Cleverman television series this is demonstrated by the production design of the Zone. The Zone is described in the series as “a vibrant and diverse suburb,” and Nash explains that “the Zone sits just left of centre. It’s not a place that lots of people go to. [In reality,] it’s 120 metres by 30 metres of nothing. It’s still a big empty space but it’s got pockets of life that would be real. It’s real. We brought reality to the space.”27. Here, Nash describes how the Zone is an aesthetically constructed setting that works to support storytelling in the space. As an abandoned railway yard, filmed on location in the Carriageworks space west of Redfern in Sydney, the aesthetic composition of the Zone is characterised by an open warehouse setting, with shipping containers repurposed as community spaces, abandoned trains used as storage and train lines that can always be seen in the space (figures 4a and 4b). As a recurring visual motif associated with the Zone, the presence of trains and train lines in a contained and secured setting represents a stagnation and containment of potential movement for the people who inhabit the space. In another sense, however, the visual presence of train lines in the setting also subverts the containment and isolation of the Zone within the city, because while train lines distinctly define the Zone’s space, they also extend beyond its borders and connect with other parts of the city – thus positioning the Zone as an intervening space in the city’s infrastructure.

Figure 4a: First appearance of The Zone in season one, episode “First Contact” (1:1)

Figure 4b: The Zone with the city in background in season one, episode “Containment” (1:2)

While the production design of The Zone may work to subvert the space’s isolation, the theme of containment recurs across the storyworld, which allegorises both the real-world ghettoing of Indigenous peoples in urban spaces – like Redfern in Sydney – and the detention of refugees. Season one of the television series features locations like the Containment Authority Detention Centre and Slade Industries’ secret lab, where Hairypeople are subjected to scientific experiments. Season two introduces the Inclusion Initiative and Bennelong House, and the comic book depicts a fight club called the Pitt. Writing about season one of the television series, Ford makes a pointed association between space and Aboriginal identity in Cleverman, stating that “The compulsion to locate Aboriginality, to make it fixed, is bound up in a long history of legal battles to do with land ownership.”28 For this reason, the depiction of Bennelong House in season two is a particularly noteworthy space because of its real-world significance as the contentious Sydney public housing complex the Sirius Building.

In Cleverman, Bennelong House is an accommodation complex used to house Hairypeople after they undergo ‘integration treatment,’ which alters their DNA to force moulting and transformation into humans, thus effectively using science to destroy mythology. The Sirius Building is a historically iconic building of 1970s brutalist architectural style with the geometric repetition of ‘housing boxes’ stacked on top of each other. Nash notes that the decision to use the façade of the Sirius Building was based on the visual symbolism needed to represent the Hairypeople’s loss of identity: “You need it to say something visually strong. Their spirit, their hair, their personality got their names changed, so I think in Bennelong House we found that in that architecture.”29 As the Sirius Building is located on “prime real estate” in the historic Sydney district of The Rocks – just below the Harbour Bridge and with an unobstructed view of the Opera House – the decision to use it to denote Bennelong House is also socio-politically timely. As season two of Cleverman aired on the ABC in 2017, the New South Wales government prepared to put the Sirius Building on the market to corporate developers and thus displace its long-term inhabitants, with the last resident having vacated the building in February 2018.30 Therefore, in using the Sirius Building façade to denote the accommodation used for the biologically transformed and “integrated” Hairypeople, the real world spills into the mythic (figures 5a and 5b).

Figure 5a: Sirius Building in The Rocks, Sydney. Photo courtesy of Katherine Lu; published in Sirius – The Book for SaveOurSirius.org

Figure 5b: The Sirius Building façade used to denote Bennelong House in season two, episode “Borrowed Time” (2:6)

Space has distinct characterisations across the two seasons of the Cleverman television series: season one is confined to a primarily contained urban setting, while season two expands out to include the regional spaces of Australian bushland, which is inhabited by the Hairypeople’s ancestors, the Bindawu. Director Leah Purcell describes this Bindawu space as “a whole new world” because of its stark contrast from the spatial identity of the first season.31 This movement from the containment in season one out to open bushland in season two is typical of a serialised storyworld, in which world-driven narratives reveal new spaces inhabited by new characters in order to tell new stories. This world extension can also reinform the spatial identity of previously represented spaces depicted in season one: as the spatial boundaries of the storyworld extend beyond the city in season two, the spatial identity of season one can be reappraised as a site not of stagnation and hopelessness but as potentially in progress. The composition of these wide shots establishes a stark visual contrast between the vibrancy of Bindawu land in the foreground and the dull and dystopian aesthetic of the city skyline out in the distance to the left of frame. The extension of space that occurs across season two – from city to bushland – works to broaden the spatial boundaries of the storyworld and diversify its visual style. Thus, the shift to Bindawu country in season two of Cleverman not only extends the Cleverman storyworld but also presents the city from a new perspective – that of the Bindawu and their uncontaminated mythologies and customs – with recurring wide shots that look out to the city skyline from Bindawu land (figure 6).

Figure 6: The city skyline from the perspective of Bindawu country in season two, episode “Dark Clouds” (2:3)

Between Myths and Genres

Cleverman uses the genre conventions of superhero fantasy and science fiction to explore the intersection between the culture and stories of Indigenous mythology and the politics and society of the modern world. A lot of significance can be (and has been) attributed to the real-world allegory of the series, in which themes of segregation, border control and asylum draw parallels with issues gripping the current socio-political landscape in Australia. However, Griffen reveals that the real difficulty in developing this unique creative premise was in finding a respectful balance between the Dreamtime mythology of Aboriginal culture and the genre conventions of superhero science fiction. He explains:

Aboriginal protocols are complex to navigate, and informed much of our process. We could sit in the writers’ room and come up with something amazing that hit all the genre beats to make a great hour of television, but if it crossed the line of what we can say and do around Aboriginal culture and Aboriginal stories, then we had to revise our thinking. These are protocols put in place by Aboriginal elders who passed the stories over to me for the show. […] The elders were trying to achieve something very special that would help to keep our culture growing.32

This expresses how the Cleverman’s role as conduit between the Dreaming and the real world parallels the storyworld’s functions as potential means for representing Indigenous culture and experience for a broader audience through the mainstream appeal of the superhero genre. Cavan Gallagher recognises that while “the show has quite rightly centred on its importance in featuring Indigenous actors and their cultures in a commercial genre drama, its other big selling point is how it has been positioned as Australia entering the superhero market.”33 In entering the superhero market, Cleverman is also an example of how storyworld design can be developed within the contexts of Australia’s modest screen media industry. Therefore, the ambitious blending of popular genres, cultural identity and Indigenous mythology takes on greater symbolic significance as it also represents the negotiation between Indigenous culture, modern mainstream genre and the synergy of multiple screen media in the storyworld’s creative development process.

The validity of mythology is a reoccurring theme and point of contention for characters in the Cleverman television series: the retort “it’s just stories” is expressed by many Aboriginal characters – including the Cleverman himself – where the term “story” is used pejoratively in the series to express something that lacks consequence or causal agency in the ‘real world.’ The ‘real world’ referred to here is the reality within the diegesis, but this also has significance to the non-diegetic real world in how it allegorises the denial of Indigenous mythology and custom in the modern Australian socio-political context. For example, the emergence of the Namorrodor creature in season one of the television series ruptures through the boundary separating ‘stories’ and the real-world, as the creature actualises Dreaming mythology with real-world consequences. According to Indigenous mythology, the Namorrodor is “a flying serpent and a man-eater, [and] is signalled by a shooting star in the night sky.”34 In the episode “First Contact,” former Cleverman Uncle Jimmy summons the Namorrodor from the Dreaming to initiate the changeover process of the Cleverman, who must destroy the creature with his nulla nulla in order to fully embody the role. The Namorrodor arrives from the sky like a meteor in a spectacular fantasy shot that ruptures the ontological boundaries of the mythic and the real world (figure 7). In Cleverman, the creature preys on the young, the elderly and the vulnerable and kills them by ripping out their hearts. However, while the presence of the Namorrodor and its killing of vulnerable people is denied as “just a story,” the Hairypeople are blamed for its multiple brutal deaths, instigating their removal from society and containment within a detention centre. As is explained in the episode “First Contact,” the Namorrodor “only turns up when things are out of balance” between the the Dreaming and the real world, and before Koen can kill the Namorrodor and fully embody the Cleverman role to restore balance between the Dreaming and the real world, he must accept that the Dreaming is not “just a story” but has real-world causal consequence. Cleverman thus employs this mythology from the Dreaming to complicate the real-world significance of fictional world-building.

Figure 7: The Namorrodor arrives from the Dreaming in season one, episode “First Contact” (1:1)


The Cleverman storyworld builds a compelling fictional setting that is enriched by genre hybridity (science fiction/fantasy/superhero), transmedial development across television and comics, the merging of American comic books with Aboriginal Australian mythologies and socio-political allegory that reflects upon Australia’s Indigenous identity and contemporary border control issues. In this way, the Cleverman is not only a conduit between the Dreaming and the real world within the diegesis, but the dynamics of these worlds also referentially resonate with the real world outside diegetic boundaries – that is, the world of the audience and contemporary Australian culture and society. This further reinforces how this storyworld informs an understanding of new storyworld structures: as narratologist David Herman recognises, “The classical, structuralist narratologists failed to come to terms with the referential or world-creating properties of narrative”35 Shifts in the contemporary mediascape, which is dominated by synergistic media strategies and transmedia storytelling, work to facilitate this critical exercise. Drawing from this shift in contemporary screen media, this analysis has considered the referential nature of world-building in Cleverman by arguing that the Cleverman’s interstitial role as a conduit between the Dreaming and the real-world functions across multiple dimensions – spatial, aesthetic, narrational and mythological – within and beyond the storyworld.

The Cleverman storyworld demonstrates how the notion of world-building has taken on more significant dimensions as an enriched expression of space, place and setting that can support multiple characters, stories, texts and media platforms. Building upon Herman’s definition of storyworlds,36 perhaps in this new media landscape worlds are not so much provoked by narratives as narratives are provoked by worlds. This shift opens up critical possibilities for rethinking narrative expectations, the potential for intertextual and intermedial dialogue, and the aesthetic possibilities of open-form world-building. The Cleverman storyworld demonstrates that world-building can function as a variant dimension of storytelling in its capacity to enrich its foundations so that more complex and multifarious stories can take place. Therefore, Nowalk’s critique that Cleverman “is too busy building a world” fundamentally misunderstands the function of world-building as a storytelling strategy at the same time that is devalues the importance of place and setting in Aboriginal mythology; however, it also productively reflects how traditional narrative expectations work in tension with current narrative trends facilitated by transmedia storytelling and media convergence. In responding to this tension, this article demonstrates that the focus on building a world is not at the expense of storytelling, but that world-building is in itself a story with rich cultural, mythological and creative significance. For this reason, attempts to critically understand or appraise any current or future iteration of the Cleverman storyworld should not understate the role of world-building in its story development.


  1. David Herman, Basic Elements of Narrative (Malden, MA: John Wiley, 2009), p. 105.
  2. Henry Jenkins, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide (New York: NYU Press, 2006), p. 114.
  3. Marie-Laurie Ryan & Jan-Noël Thom, Storyworlds Across Media: Toward a Media-Conscious Narratology (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2014), p. 1.
  4. ibid., p. 19.
  5. Brandon Nowalk, “Aboriginal Fantasy Cleverman Is Too Busy Building a World to Tell a Story,” AV/TV Club (June 2016), https://tv.avclub.com/aboriginal-fantasy-cleverman-is-too-busy-building-a-wor-1798187967
  6. Wolfgang Bylsma & Ryan Griffen, Cleverman #1, 2017, p. 4.
  7. “Introduction to The Dreaming,” Indigenous Australia, accessed 25 September 2018, http://www.indigenousaustralia.info/the-dreaming/introduction.html
  8. Mark J.P. Wolf, Building Imaginary Worlds: The Theory and History of Subcreation (New York: Routledge, 2012), p. 2.
  9. Jenkins, op. cit., pp. 118–119.
  10. Bylsma & Griffen, op. cit., p. 26.
  11. Kate Warner, “Relationships with the Past: How Australian Television Dramas Talk About Indigenous History,” M/C Journal 20. 5 (2017), http://journal.media-culture.org.au/index.php/mcjournal/article/view/1302
  12. Ryan Griffen, quoted in Caris Bizzaca, “The World of Cleverman,” Screen Australia (June 2016), https://www.screenaustralia.gov.au/sa/screen-news/2016/06-01-the-world-of-cleverman
  13. Jenkins, op. cit., p. 96.
  14. Anna Zaluczkowska, “Storyworld: The Bigger Picture, Investigating Multi-Platform/Transmedia Production and its Affect on Storytelling Processes,” Journal of Screenwriting 3.1 (2012), p. 91.
  15. Ryan & Thon, op. cit., p. 13.
  16. Ryan Griffen, “We Need More Aboriginal Superheroes, So I Created Cleverman for My Son,” The Guardian (May 2016), https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2016/may/27/i-created-cleverman-for-my-son-because-we-need-more-aboriginal-superheroes
  17. Birgit Neumann & Martin Zierold, “Media as Ways of Worldmaking: Media-specific Structures and Intermedial Dynamics,” Cultural Ways of Worldmaking: Media and Narratives, Vera Nünning, Angar Nünning and Birgit Neumann, eds, (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2010), p. 108.
  18. Griffen, op. cit.
  19. Matthew Freeman, “Superman: Building a Transmedia World for a Comic Book Hero,” Transmedia Archaeology: Storytelling in the Borderlines of Science Fiction, Comics and Pulp Magazines, Carlos Scolari, Paolo Bertetti and Matthew Freeman, eds, (London: Palgrave, 2014), p. 42.
  20. Jacob Nash, in Cleverman Season One DVD Extras Featurette “The Culture and the Genre of Cleverman”.
  21. Neumann & Zierold, op. cit., p. 115.
  22. ibid., pp. 108–109.
  23. ibid., p. 109.
  24. “Screen Dreaming in Cleverman: Reimagining Indigenous Identities,” Screen Education 85 (2016), p. 27.
  25. Brian Karlovsky, “Dawn of the Cleverman,” Inside Film #170 (April–May, 2016), p. 13
  26. Jenkins, op. cit., p. 115.
  27. Jacob Nash, in Cleverman Season One DVD Extras Featurette, “The Zone”
  28. Ford, op. cit., p. 30; original emphasis.
  29. Jacob Nash, in Cleverman Season Two DVD Extras Featurette, “The Inclusion Initiative”.
  30. Miriam Webber, “Sirius Campaigners Farewell Final Resident but Pledge to Buy Back Building,” The Sydney Morning Herald (27 January 2018), https://www.smh.com.au/national/nsw/sirius-campaigners-farewell-final-resident-but-pledge-to-buy-back-building-20180127-h0p6ts.html
  31. Leah Purcell, in Cleverman Season One DVD Extras Featurette, “The Bindawu”
  32. Griffen, op. cit.
  33. Cavan Gallagher, “No Spandex Required: Cleverman, Indigenous Stories and the New Superhero,” Metro 90 (2016), p. 39.
  34. Robert Lewis, “Dust Echoes: Namorrodor,” ATOM Study Guide, 2007, p. 2.
  35. Herman, op. cit., p. 106.
  36. Herman, op. cit., p. 105.

About The Author

Tara Lomax is an author and scholar with expertise in blockbuster franchising, multiplatform storytelling, and contemporary Hollywood entertainment. She has a PhD in screen studies from The University of Melbourne and her work can be found in publications that include the journals Senses of Cinema and Quarterly Review of Film and Video, and the book collections Starring Tom Cruise (Wayne State UP, 2021), The Supervillain Reader (UP Mississippi, 2020), The Superhero Symbol: Media, Culture & Politics (Rutgers UP, 2020), The Palgrave Handbook of Screen Production (Palgrave, 2019), and Star Wars and the History of Transmedia Storytelling (Amsterdam UP, 2017). She is currently Senior Higher Education Curriculum Writer and a guest lecturer at the Australian College of the Arts (Collarts) in Melbourne.

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