Robot 6

Balloonless | Comic-Con and the Business of Pop Culture

Early August might seem like a strange time to be thinking overmuch about Comic-Con International, which just wrapped up a few weeks ago. I can’t speak for the rest of the industry, of course, but I know I’m still exhausted from this year’s convention — and I didn’t even attend. Just trying to keep up with all the news via Internet was enough to burn me out.

But Rob Salkowitz’s new book Comic-Con and the Business of Pop Culture: What the World’s Wildest Trade Show Can Tell Us About the Future of Entertainment is well worth reading and thinking about — either casually or overmuch — given its up-to-the-minute survey of the comics landscape, and the fairly engaging, accessible way in which he discusses the pressing issues affecting just about everyone involved in it.

Despite the title, Comic-Con isn’t the subject matter of the book so much as the framing device Salkowitz uses to talk about comics. A regular attendee with some decent connections — he and his wife Eunice are friends with Batton Lash and Jackie Estrada, and they volunteer at the Eisners each year — Salkowitz discusses the history of the convention and the important place it occupies in today’s entertainment world (referring to it, at one point, as the “Iowa caucus for comics and genre movies”), but it essentially functions as a conceit for a business book.

He details he and his wife’s trip to the 2011 convention, selecting anecdotes to buttress discussions of various business aspects of comics and the entertainment world they are powering, zig-zagging from a story about running into a retailer pal of his to discussing the “fist-sized knot” of comics’ current distribution system (a phrase he returns to a lot to describe the direct market), from the boxes of back issues to the value of the comic book as an object in and of itself, rather than just a vessel for information that can be transmitted digitally.

It proves a remarkably effective strategy, as he seems to cover just about everything of interest or import facing comics today, in many cases laying bare aspects of the industry that likely escape the notice of those of us who are perhaps too close to the subject matter (like, for example, the shape of the current market, how man people purchase comic books, how much money is in comics and solid guestimates of digital sales, and so on).

The title might also sound a bit broad, as “Entertainment” is a different — and bigger, more widely encompassing word — than “comics,” but he writes rather convincingly of the importance of comics in the entertainment industry, referring to creators as a sort of rare, invaluable, rainforest-grown resource (take for example, Jack Kirby, and think of how much of today’s entertainment industry is derived from that single creator) and comics publishers as a hamster running in a wheel that’s powering film, television and video game studios.

He occasionally sounds like he’s reaching — I can think of at least one example I didn’t quite buy* — but for the most part, he connects the dots between comics and various forms of fandom for geek and genre entertainment of all media, and backs it with compelling examples. He also presents about as strong as an argument for the continued importance of comic books for the big publishers like Marvel and DC, even if they continue to make most of their money from licensing of their intellectual property to other media, as I’ve heard, one that’s pure business, rather than based on nostalgia or appreciation of monthly super-comics as an art form:

Costumed superheroes that originated in other media have simply not generated the same kind of mystique as those created in the pages of comics. Even licensed characters that have become successful movie franchises—Spider-Man, X-Men, Batman and Marvel’s Avengers cycle—are using plots that originated decades ago in the comics, and they run out of steam after three films at most.

Okay, well, Superman managed five films and is going on his sixth, and Batman’s seventh live-action film just opened, but given how long even the most successful franchises go before concluding, rebooting or stop being any damn good, that makes sense — I guess we’ll have to wait and see if Iron Man 4 is as good as the original. If The Avengers and Batman: Arkham Asylum  and … City are the ultimate finished product that Disney and Warner Bros. really make their money off of, they still need to churn out hundreds of comics over a matter of years to mine for content ore.

That, of course, is only one of a score of little conversations that Salkowitz starts in this book, and that will (or at least should) be continued in offices in New York and Los Angeles, at retailer summits and in bars where creators gather. You’ll recognize a lot of them, as they are the sorts of things we’re always talking about in the comics blogosphere, but Salkowitz writes breezily and elegantly about them, presenting them in a way that, to borrow a term from comics publishing, is new-reader friendly. His Comic-Con is a pretty perfect jumping-on point for discussion of most aspects of the comics industry as it stands in 2012.

And, perhaps most importantly, he writes knowledgeably about these matters. His is an authentic voice, and he writes like someone as steeped in comics as you or I. Rather than a business guy looking for a hook to hang a book on, he’s a business guy who is also a comics guy — he seems to know what he’s talking about.

I’m a little less sure of how well he knows the future of comics, as I can’t judge what he’s put on the page with the world around me yet — maybe we’ll check back in on this book in 15 year or so? — but in the last chapter of the book he lays out four scenarios for the future of comics and the entertainment world they influence.

If we’re really at “peak geek” now, how will various players take advantage of what might be the climax in societal interest in comics “as genre” (as opposed to “as media”) and seek out the future that best aligns with their own hopes for the medium (and/or the business) of comics?

The final chapter is the most businessy chapter in the book, as the analogies and anecdotes give way to charts and diagrams, and those with a more casual interest in the future of comics might not care as much about these matters as, say, Dan DiDio or Joe Quesada or Ted Adams or Mike Richardson or the rooms full of suits at various movie studios, but the possible futures of the art form and its industry are a few more conversations that Salkowitz starts before the book ends.

So let’s start talking.

 

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Comic-Con and the Business of Pop CUlture: What the World’s Wildest Trade Show Can Tell Us About the Future of Entertainment by Rob Salkowitz, McGraw Hill, 292 pages, $27

 

*Salkowitz asserts causation in the ascendancy of the comic book in public esteem with the fact that more television shows have serial, story arc-like narratives and show-to-show continuity, rather than hitting the reset button after each done-in-one episode. I also don’t like his term “alt.comics”, used to refer to comics-as-art, literary, or simply non-superhero, non-genre comics. I basically just don’t get where the “.” comes from, or why he uses it; Salkowitz does detail the fact that comics have the mainstream/alternative relationship the reverse of every other medium. That is, in comics, “mainstream” refers to “superheroes” and “horror” and other specific genres, whereas “alternative” refers to books lacking superheroes, vampires, zombies and super-spies. 

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2 Comments

I would assume alt.comics is a Usenet reference. Why, I cannot begin to fathom.

The way Rob used alt.comcs in the book was as a catch-all to describe alternative publishers and material, things that can’t be directly shoehorned into a simple one-word genre reference point. Maus would be a good example, American Splendor, Ghost World, and Persepolis were others mentioned under this umbrella. There was also a consistent connotation (say that five times fast) that this material was more personal visions coming largely unfiltered from the creator without a lot of editorial or publisher oversight or input — mostly either creator-owned or self-published. That’s the distinction he was trying to make opposed to Marvel or DC’s ‘mainstream’.

I didn’t mind it, it was shorthand for a large amount of very diseperate material that would be hard to find a simple common denominator reference for.

“Okay, well, Superman managed five films and is going on his sixth, and Batman’s seventh live-action film just opened”

Out of which less than half of either was actually watchable in the first place or has stood up to the test of time. There was a *lot* of phoning it in on those dozen films I can’t even imagine what the modern equivalent of having Richard Pryor in Superman IV would be . . . how many years did it take to get the bad taste of Bat-nipples and Bat-credit cards out of the public’s mouth before Nolan got a shot to undo Schumacher’s mess? When a decade passes between installments, that’s running out of steam.

” If The Avengers and Batman: Arkham Asylum and … City are the ultimate finished product that Disney and Warner Bros. really make their money off of, they still need to churn out hundreds of comics over a matter of years to mine for content ore. ”

I’m not sure about how much modern / recent comics are actually contributing to the overall idea / canon pool. Most modern-era creators doing work for hire don’t really seem to be contributing major new facets to the mix, it’s a lot of rehashes or reboots — new or tweaked origins and retcons rather than new characters. It’s putting their spin on established material than adding new squares to the quilt. It’s one thing to mine self-contained storylines like the Dark Phoenix Saga or Infinity Gauntlet for specific ideas, it’s a lot harder to do the line-wide events like Flashpoint or Fear Itself where the core point is just to get you to buy more comics.

If you think about the trend toward trying to be transmedia and tweaking the source material to better fit the adaptations, then you get to the cycle where future screenwriters, directors, and studio executives can kind of ignore the comics and just look at the past adaptations, since the comics are slowly transitioning into adaptations of the films. Those are the iterations that are making money, the ones that large numbers of consumers are familiar with. It’s nice that they throw the 30,000 -50,000 or so of us that read the comics on a regular basis a bone, but the kids growing up today are developing a taste for live-action 3D superheroes and not their musty paper counterparts — they’re not going back to the source material to get their Avengers fix, they’ll just wait for the next movie. The films, animated series, and even to a point, video games, will end up being more canon to the future creators than the comics will. It’ll be less the different nuances of Tony Stark from different comics writers than the different portrayals of the actors that have played him.

Great review, though, and the book absolutely generates a lot of discussions. Rob does have a very authoritative voice and is able to back up much of his predictions with some pretty sound logic, whether you agree with it or not is a different thing, but the thing I found most refreshing is that he didn’t have an overall agenda, not embodying any one camp. Comics need to have the mainstream crowd-pleasing spectacle as well as the more emotionally relevant alternative material, there should be a balance. He’s not saying Marvel and DC need to go away and Image and Dark Horse need to take their place, or is he saying Action Comics is any more or less valid than Sandman or Maus. The biggest problem with comics is the way the business end of the industry is run — short-sighted, with only short-term goals if there are any actual goals, period, beyond the Hail Mary Hollywood deal that will make something successful and wildly popular.

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