Comic-Con and the Business of Pop Culture

 Posted: Jun 2012
 Staff: The Editor (E-Mail)


It's 2012, and popular comics are at a cross-roads. Again.

Comics have faced many crises before. After World War II, boys who had gone overseas to fight in countries they couldn't even find on a map returned home as weary, cynical men with greatly changed ideas as to what constituted light reading. Ten years later in the mid 1950's, comics were once again forced to head for the storm cellars and frantically re-imagine themselves in the face of vitriolic attacks by Fredric Wertham and the ever-present menace of the Comic Code.

By contrast, the 60's were a period of explosive invention with Marvel at the fore. And as that decade closed, the teenage readers of the 60's became the college students and young professionals of the 70's. Thanks to Stan Lee's efforts to retain his readership as they matured, that generation became the first adults with real income to spend on collecting comics. Formerly throw-away treats, comics books eventually became valuable collectibles, with a growing network of dedicated fans and collectors assembled around them.

In the 80's, irrational enthusiasm lead to gratuitous over-production of low-quality product, and saw the invention of cynical marketing gimmicks including a constant stream of new titles, artificially generated "Number 1" issues, and the much-abused "rare and collectable" variant cover. Comic companies were listed on the stock exchange, where they gambled away their future by issuing junk bonds backed by nothing but impossibly optimistic forecasts of eternal growth.

At the start of the 90's, Marvel collapsed. They were fortunate to emerge relatively unscathed from Chapter 11, the sad story of which you can read in the fascinating book Comic Wars. They were saved as a company, but the following two decades would be difficult times indeed. Video games came to every home and relentlessly chipped away at the available time and money formerly spent on comics. The sales figures for even the most popular comic book titles headed relentlessly south.

Finally, the 2000's saw the spectacular rise of comic-book theme parks, blockbuster comic-book movies, TV cartoon series, and video games. But while this has done great things for the profitability of the companies that own the Intellectual Properties behind the comic book characters (and has also removed much of the former stigma of being an adult comic book fan) it has done very little to ensure the survival of the underlying comic book format.

All of which brings us to 2012, when the San Diego Comic-Con can attract a mind-boggling 150,000 visitors over five crazy days of pop culture overload, while simultaneously, comic books and comic book retailers flounder on the edge of extinction.

Story Details

Yes indeed. The biggest comic book convention in the world is growing every year, while the poor old comic books responsible for its very existence are gasping for air.

How did this happen? And more importantly for anybody who cares about comic books, or the business of pop culture, where is this all going to end up in a global, digital world.

Rob Salkowitz cares both about comics and about the business of popular media and culture. He's a long-time comic book fan with deep understanding of what drives creators, publishers, readers, collectors, and retailers. He's also a media business consultant with two previous books to his name: Young World Rising and Generation Blend, both of which are pretty relevant to the question at hand.

Enough preamble. Let's get into Comic-Con and the Business of Pop Culture.

The foundations of the book are constructed by following the 2012 San Diego Comic-Con as experienced by Rob and his wife throughout the year - from the first challenge of booking tickets, to the exhausting conclusion of the very last late-night party. As a long-time attendee, Salkowitz capably offers an insider's perceptive view on the many-faceted convention, which is fascinating in its own right.

But that's just the appetizer. The real value of this book appears as Salkowitz extends his insight into the turbulent zone where money-making pop culture struggles to reconcile its humble origins with its oft-conflicting transmedia outgrowths.

The term "transmedia" is vital to this study. It refers to the way that a simple, classic comic book character is now implemented (as a modern-day high-value intellectual property) across comics, compiled "trade paperback" reprints, digital comics, novels, movies, cartoons, theme parks, T-shirts, posters, socks, wristwatches, card games, board games, video games, and the rest of the endless tie-in products.

As well as the transmedia aspects of the comic pop culture phenomena, Rob identifies half a dozen key aspects of the domain which need to be well-understood by anybody attempting to forecast a future for it: Transmedia, Globalization, Changing Delivery, Generation Changes, Entrepreneurial Innovation, and Creative Democratization.

Every single one of these issues is vital to the future of comics. Equally, the reality of the forces driving these issues is clearly visible to anybody who walks around Comic-Con, assuming you can tear your eyes off the "booth babes" for long enough to see the whole picture.

General Comments

Through the first six chapters, Salkowitz lays down the groundwork for appreciating the history of comics and of the San Diego Comic-Con, while extending in parallel an illuminating discussion of each of those key considerations he considers vital to understanding and predicting the fast-changing face of the industry.

The treatment of each aspect is both entertaining and very thought-provoking. It is also very thorough. While reading, I began making a number of notes of small topics which I intended to point out as having been sadly overlooked. Unfortunately for my ego, each "missing" item I duly recorded was inevitably covered a few pages later in an appropriate context, so I gave up playing that game.

"Ah well," you might say. "Fascinating history and insightful analysis is all very well. But what of the future?"

Fear not, future-gazers. Chapter Seven is all for you.

Of course, if Mr. Salkowitz really knew exactly what was going to happen, he wouldn't be wasting his time writing books for a living - he would be Disney Vice President in charge of Corporate Division #901B (Marvel Comics). But by identifying what he suggests are the two most vital potential outcome variables, he constructs four potential "extreme" visions of what the future holds for comic books, and for comic book popular culture.

Personally, I'm not sure I like any of them. But it's hard to argue with his reasoning.

Overall Rating

This is an extraordinarily timely work. I absolutely agree with Rob Salkowitz that the traditional comic book we know today is living on borrowed time. Before too long, the combined forces of digital media, web comics, print-on-demand, globalization, transmedia, generational shift, and/or inevitable cyclical trend changes are going to push it to a tipping point.

So what happens then? Does Rob Salkowitz have the answer?

I don't know. But he's is one of a very small number of people even constructing sensible questions. And if you care to join that number, I very strongly recommend you start with reading this book.

Five out of Five Webs.

 Posted: Jun 2012
 Staff: The Editor (E-Mail)