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.
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.